Byzantine Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived for a thousand years after the western half had crumbled into various feudal kingdoms and which finally fell to Ottoman Turkish onslaughts in 1453.
The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child (centre), Justinian (left) holding a model of the Hagia Sophia, and Constantine (right) holding a model of the city of Constantinople; mosaic from the Hagia Sophia, 9th century.
Dumbarton Oaks/Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.
The very name Byzantine illustrates the misconceptions to which the empire’s history has often been subject, for its inhabitants would hardly have considered the term appropriate to themselves or to their state. Theirs was, in their view, none other than the Roman Empire, founded shortly before the beginning of the Christian era by God’s grace to unify his people in preparation for the coming of his Son. Proud of that Christian and Roman heritage, convinced that their earthly empire so nearly resembled the heavenly pattern that it could never change, they called themselves Romaioi, or Romans. Modern historians agree with them only in part. The term East Rome accurately described the political unit embracing the Eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire until 476, while there were yet two emperors. The same term may even be used until the last half of the 6th century, as long as men continued to act and think according to patterns not unlike those prevailing in an earlier Roman Empire. During those same centuries, nonetheless, there were changes so profound in their cumulative effect that after the 7th century state and society in the East differed markedly from their earlier forms. In an effort to recognize that distinction, historians traditionally have described the medieval empire as Byzantine.
When did the Byzantine Empire exist?
How was the Byzantine Empire different from the Roman Empire?
How did the Byzantine Empire get its name?
Where was the Byzantine Empire?
Did the Byzantine Empire practice Christianity?
The latter term is derived from the name Byzantium, borne by a colony of ancient Greek foundation on the European side of the Bosporus, midway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The city was, by virtue of its location, a natural transit point between Europe and Asia Minor (Anatolia). Refounded as the “new Rome” by the emperor Constantine I in 330, it was endowed by him with the name Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The derivation from Byzantium is suggestive in that it emphasizes a central aspect of Byzantine civilization: the degree to which the empire’s administrative and intellectual life found a focus at Constantinople from 330 to 1453, the year of the city’s last and unsuccessful defense under the 11th (or 12th) Constantine. The circumstances of the last defense are suggestive too, for in 1453 the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds seemed briefly to meet. The last Constantine fell in defense of the new Rome built by the first Constantine. Walls that had held firm in the early Middle Ages against German, Hun, Avar, Slav, and Arab were breached finally by modern artillery, in the mysteries of which European technicians had instructed the most successful of the Central Asian invaders: the Ottoman Turks.
Marble head of Constantine I, the only surviving piece of a giant statue that was made about 300 CE.
The fortunes of the empire were thus intimately entwined with those of peoples whose achievements and failures constitute the medieval history of both Europe and Asia. Nor did hostility always characterize the relations between Byzantines and those whom they considered “barbarian.” Even though the Byzantine intellectual firmly believed that civilization ended with the boundaries of his world, he opened it to the barbarian, provided that the latter (with his kin) would accept baptism and render loyalty to the emperor. Thanks to the settlements that resulted from such policies, many a name, seemingly Greek, disguises another of different origin: Slavic, perhaps, or Turkish. Barbarian illiteracy, in consequence, obscures the early generations of more than one family destined to rise to prominence in the empire’s military or civil service. Byzantium was a melting-pot society, characterized during its earlier centuries by a degree of social mobility that belies the stereotype, often applied to it, of an immobile caste-ridden society.
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A source of strength in the early Middle Ages, Byzantium’s central geographical position served it ill after the 10th century. The conquests of that age presented new problems of organization and assimilation, and those the emperors had to confront at precisely the time when older questions of economic and social policy pressed for answers in a new and acute form. Satisfactory solutions were never found. Bitter ethnic and religious hostility marked the history of the empire’s later centuries, weakening Byzantium in the face of new enemies descending upon it from east and west. The empire finally collapsed when its administrative structures could no longer support the burden of leadership thrust upon it by military conquests.
The empire to 867
The Roman and Christian background
Unity and diversity in the late Roman Empire
The Roman Empire, the ancestor of the Byzantine, remarkably blended unity and diversity, the former being by far the better known, since its constituents were the predominant features of Roman civilization. The common Latin language, the coinage, the “international” army of the Roman legions, the urban network, the law, and the Greco-Roman heritage of civic culture loomed largest among those bonds that Augustus and his successors hoped would bring unity and peace to a Mediterranean world exhausted by centuries of civil war. To strengthen those sinews of imperial civilization, the emperors hoped that a lively and spontaneous trade might develop between the several provinces. At the pinnacle of that world stood the emperor himself, the man of wisdom who would shelter the state from whatever mishaps fortune had darkly hidden. The emperor alone could provide that protection, since, as the embodiment of all the virtues, he possessed in perfection those qualities displayed only imperfectly by his individual subjects.
The Roman formula of combating fortune with reason and therewith ensuring unity throughout the Mediterranean world worked surprisingly well in view of the pressures for disunity that time was to multiply. Conquest had brought regions of diverse background under Roman rule. The Eastern provinces were ancient and populous centres of that urban life that for millennia had defined the character of Mediterranean civilization. The Western provinces had only lately entered upon their own course of urban development under the not-always-tender ministrations of their Roman masters.
Each of the aspects of unity enumerated above had its other side. Not everyone understood or spoke Latin. Paralleling and sometimes influencing Roman law were local customs and practices, understandably tenacious by reason of their antiquity. Pagan temples, Jewishsynagogues, and Christian baptisteries attest to the range of organized religions with which the official forms of the Roman state, including those of emperor worship, could not always peacefully coexist. And far from unifying the Roman world, economic growth often created self-sufficient units in the several regions, provinces, or great estates.
Given the obstacles against which the masters of the Roman state struggled, it is altogether remarkable that Roman patriotism was ever more than an empty formula, that cultivated gentlemen from the Pillars of Hercules to the Black Sea were aware that they had “something” in common. That “something” might be defined as the Greco-Roman civic tradition in the widest sense of its institutional, intellectual, and emotional implications. Grateful for the conditions of peace that fostered it, men of wealth and culture dedicated their time and resources to glorifying that tradition through adornment of the cities that exemplified it and through education of the young who they hoped might perpetuate it.
Upon that world the barbarians descended after about 150 CE. To protect the frontier against them, warrior emperors devoted whatever energies they could spare from the constant struggle to reassert control over provinces where local regimes emerged. In view of the ensuing warfare, the widespread incidence of disease, and the rapid turnover among the occupants of the imperial throne, it would be easy to assume that little was left of either the traditional fabric of Greco-Roman society or the bureaucratic structure designed to support it.
Neither assumption is accurate. Devastation was haphazard, and some regions suffered while others did not. In fact, the economy and society of the empire as a whole during that period was the most diverse it had ever been. Impelled by necessity or lured by profit, people moved from province to province. Social disorder opened avenues to eminence and wealth that the more-stable order of an earlier age had closed to the talented and the ambitious. For personal and dynastic reasons, emperors favoured certain towns and provinces at the expense of others, and the erratic course of succession to the throne, coupled with a resulting constant change among the top administrative officials, largely deprived economic and social policies of recognizable consistency.
The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine
The definition of consistent policy in imperial affairs was the achievement of two great soldier-emperors, Diocletian (ruled 284–305) and Constantine I (sole emperor 324–337), who together ended a century of anarchy and refounded the Roman state. There are many similarities between them, not the least being the range of problems to which they addressed themselves: both had learned from the 3rd-century anarchy that one man alone and unaided could not hope to control the multiform Roman world and protect its frontiers; as soldiers, both considered reform of the army a prime necessity in an age that demanded the utmost mobility in striking power; and both found the old Rome and Italy an unsatisfactory military base for the bulk of the imperial forces. Deeply influenced by the soldier’s penchant for hierarchy, system, and order, a taste that they shared with many of their contemporaries as well as the emperors who preceded them, they were appalled by the lack of system and the disorder characteristic of the economy and the society in which they lived. Both, in consequence, were eager to refine and regularize certain desperate expedients that had been adopted by their rough military predecessors to conduct the affairs of the Roman state. Whatever their personal religious convictions, both, finally, believed that imperial affairs would not prosper unless the emperor’s subjects worshiped the right gods in the right way.
Statue of Diocletian's tetrarchy, red porphyry, c. 300 CE, taken to Venice 1258.
Alinari/Art Resource, New York
The means they adopted to achieve those ends differ so profoundly that one, Diocletian, looks to the past and ends the history of Rome; the other, Constantine, looks to the future and founds the history of Byzantium. Thus, in the matter of succession to the imperial office, Diocletian adopted precedents he could have found in the practices of the 2nd century CE. He associated with himself a coemperor, or Augustus. Each Augustus then adopted a young colleague, or Caesar, to share in the rule and eventually to succeed the senior partner. That rule of four, or tetrarchy, failed of its purpose, and Constantine replaced it with the dynastic principle of hereditary succession, a procedure generally followed in subsequent centuries. To divide administrative responsibilities, Constantine replaced the single praetorian prefect, who had traditionally exercised both military and civil functions in close proximity to the emperor, with regional prefects established in the provinces and enjoying civil authority alone. In the course of the 4th century, four great “regional prefectures” emerged from those Constantinian beginnings, and the practice of separating civil from military authority persisted until the 7th century.
Contrasts in other areas of imperial policy are equally striking. Diocletian persecuted Christians and sought to revive the ancestral religion. Constantine, a convert to the new faith, raised it to the status of a “permitted religion.” Diocletian established his headquarters at Nicomedia, a city that never rose above the status of a provincial centre during the Middle Ages, whereas Constantinople, the city of Constantine’s foundation, flourished mightily. Diocletian sought to bring order into the economy by controlling wages and prices and by initiating a currency reform based upon a new gold piece, the aureus, struck at the rate of 60 to the pound of gold. The controls failed and the aureus vanished, to be succeeded by Constantine’s gold solidus. The latter piece, struck at the lighter weight of 72 to the gold pound, remained the standard for centuries. For whatever reason, in summary, Constantine’s policies proved extraordinarily fruitful. Some of them—notably hereditary succession, the recognition of Christianity, the currency reform, and the foundation of the capital—determined in a lasting way the several aspects of Byzantine civilization with which they are associated.
Yet it would be a mistake to consider Constantine a revolutionary or to overlook those areas in which, rather than innovating, he followed precedent. Earlier emperors had sought to constrain groups of men to perform certain tasks that were deemed vital to the survival of the state but that proved unremunerative or repellent to those forced to assume the burden. Such tasks included the tillage of the soil, which was the work of the peasant, or colonus; the transport of cheap bulky goods to the metropolitan centres of Rome or Constantinople, which was the work of the shipmaster, or navicularius; and services rendered by the curiales, members of the municipal senate charged with the assessment and collection of local taxes. Constantine’s laws in many instances extended or even rendered hereditary those enforced responsibilities, thus laying the foundations for the system of collegia, or hereditary state guilds, that was to be so noteworthy a feature of late-Roman social life. Of particular importance, he required the colonus (peasant) to remain in the locality to which the tax lists ascribed him.
The 5th century: Persistence of Greco-Roman civilization in the East
Whether innovative or traditional, Constantine’s measures determined the thrust and direction of imperial policy throughout the 4th century and into the 5th. The state of the empire in 395 may, in fact, 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, both of whom were young and incompetent: Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. Never again would one man rule over the full extent of the empire in both its halves. Constantinople had probably grown to a population of between 200,000 and 500,000; in the 5th century the emperors sought to restrain rather than promote its growth. After 391 Christianity was far more than one among many religions: from that year onward, imperial decree prohibited all forms of pagan cult, and the temples were closed. Imperial pressure was often manifest at the church councils of the 4th century, with the emperor assuming a role he was destined to fill again during the 5th century in defining and suppressing heresy.
Gold coin depicting Valentinian II (obverse side) and Valentinian II with Theodosius I (reverse side).
CNG coins (http://www.cngcoins.com)
Economic and social policies
The empire’s economy had prospered in a spotty fashion. Certain provinces, or parts of provinces such as northern Italy, flourished commercially as well as agriculturally. Constantinople, in particular, influenced urban growth and the exploitation of agricultural frontiers. Balkan towns along the roads leading to the great city prospered, while others not so favoured languished and even disappeared. Untilled land in the hilly regions of northern Syria fell under the plow to supply foodstuffs for the masses of Constantinople. As the 4th century progressed, not only did Constantine’s solidus remain indeed solid gold, but evidence drawn from a wide range of sources suggests that gold in any form was far more abundant than it had been for at least two centuries. It may be that new sources of supply for the precious metal had been discovered: those perhaps were in spoils plundered from pagan temples or perhaps were from mines newly exploited in western Africa and newly available to the lands of the empire, thanks to the appearance of camel-driving nomads who transported the gold across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coastline of North Africa.
The extreme social mobility noted in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries seems less characteristic of the second half of the latter century. Certainly the emperors continued their efforts to bind men collectively to their socially necessary tasks, but the repetition of laws tying the colonus to his estate, the navicularius to his ship, and the curialis to his municipal senate suggests that those edicts had little effect. Indeed, it would be a mistake to conclude from such legislation that Roman society was universally and uniformly organized in castes determined in response to imperial orders. There was always a distinction between what an emperor wanted and what he could obtain, and, as the foregoing survey has suggested, there were distinctions between the provinces as well.
Even before the end of the first quarter of the 5th century, those provincial differences were visible, and in no small degree they help to explain the survival of imperial government and Greco-Roman civilization in the East while both eventually perished in the West. Throughout the Eastern provinces, population levels seem to have remained higher, and the emperors in Constantinople never had to search (at least until the 6th century) for men to fill the ranks of their armies. As might be expected in those eastern lands in which urban civilization was several centuries old, cities persisted and, with them, a merchant class and a monetary economy. Eastern merchants, known in the sources as Syrians, assumed the carrying trade between East and West, often establishing colonies in the beleaguered cities of the latter region.
Most important, the emperor in the East never lost access to, or control over, his sources of manpower and money. An older and probably more-wealthy senatorial class, or aristocracy, in the West consolidated its great estates and assumed a form of protection or patronage over the labouring rural classes, depriving the state of desperately needed military and financial services. The senatorial class in the East seems to have been of more-recent origin, its beginnings to be found among those favourites or parvenus who had followed Constantine to his new capital. By the early 5th century, their wealth seems to have been, individually, much less than the resources at the disposal of their Western counterparts; their estates were far more scattered and their rural dependents less numerous. They were thus less able to challenge the imperial will and less able to interpose themselves between the state on the one hand and its potential soldiers or taxpayers on the other.