Byzantine Empire

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General history

Βασιλεία Ρωμαίων
Roman (Byzantine) Empire

(Flag of the late Empire)

(The Imperial emblem of the double-headed eagle)
Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent c. 550.
Territories highlighted violet conquered during the reign of Justinian I.
National Motto:
Βασιλεύς Βασιλέων Βασιλεύων Βασιλευόντων
(Greek: "King of Kings Ruling Over Rulers")
Official languages Greek
Capital Constantinople
Official Religion Greek Orthodox Christianity
Government Autocratic Monarchy
Head of state Emperor
Head of government Megas Logothetes, later Megas Doux
Deliberative Body Byzantine Senate, until the 13th century
 - Total

 - % water

2.7 million km² at its height
Population ca. 34 million at its foundation in the 4th century
Establishment traditionally considered the establishment of Constantinople as capital of the Roman Empire; May 11, 330 AD
Dissolution Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire on May 29, 1453 AD
First Emperor Constantine the Great ( 306 - 337 AD)
Last Emperor Constantine XI ( 1449 - 1453 AD)
Currency Solidus, Hyperpyron

The Byzantine Empire ( Greek name: Βασιλεία τῶν Ρωμαίων - Basileia tōn Romaiōn) is the term conventionally used since the 19th century to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered around its capital of Constantinople. In certain specific contexts, usually referring to the time before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it is also often referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire. To its inhabitants, the Empire was simply the Roman Empire and its emperors continued the unbroken succession of Roman emperors. During much of its history it was known to many of its Western contemporaries as The Empire of the Greeks due to the increasing dominance of its Greek population and distinct culture.

There is no consensus on the exact point when the Byzantine period began. Some place it during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, (284–305) who introduced administrative reforms that divided the empire into a pars Orientis (eastern half) and a pars Occidentis (western half). Some consider Constantine I the first Byzantine emperor. Others start it during the reign of Theodosius I (379–395) and Christendom's victory over pagan Roman religion, or, following his death in 395, with the permanent division of the empire into western and eastern halves. Others place it yet further in 476, when the last western emperor, Romulus Augustus, was forced to abdicate, thus leaving sole imperial authority to the emperor in the Greek East. Others again point to the reorganisation of the empire in the time of Heraclius (ca. 620) when Greek was made the official language and the Empire's conflicts turned largely to the east. In any case, the changeover was gradual and by 330, when Constantine inaugurated his new capital, the process of further Hellenization and increasing Christianization was already under way.

Name of the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire Timeline
667 BC Ancient city of Byzantium (future Constantinople) is founded.
330 AD Constantine makes Constantinople his capital.
395 Empire permanently split into Eastern and Western halves, following the death of Theodosius I.
527 Justinian I crowned emperor.
Justinian builds the church of Hagia Sophia
533–554 Justinian's generals reconquer North Africa and Italy from the Vandals and Ostrogoths.
568 The Lombard invasion results in the loss of most of Italy.
634–641 Arab armies conquer the Levant and Egypt. In the following decades, they take most of North Africa, and later conquer Sicily as well.
730–787; 813–843 Iconoclasm controversies. This results in the loss of most of the Empire's remaining Italian territories, aside from some territories in the south.
843–1025 Macedonian dynasty established. The empire experiences a military and territorial revival. Byzantine scholars record and preserve many valuable ancient Greek and Roman texts.
1002–1018 Emperor Basil II campaigns annually against the Bulgarians, with the object of annihilating the Bulgar state.
1014 The Bulgarian army is completely defeated at the Battle of Kleidon. Basil II becomes known as The Bulgar Slayer.
1018 Bulgaria surrenders and is annexed to the empire. The whole of the Balkans is incorporated into the Byzantine Empire, with the Danube as the new Imperial Frontier in the north.
1025 Death of Basil II. Decline of the Byzantine Empire begins.
1054 Schism. Split between Church in Rome and the Church in Constantinople.
1071 Emperor Romanos IV is defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Most of Asia Minor is lost. In the same year, the last Byzantine outposts in Italy are conquered by the Normans.
1081 Komnenos dynasty is established by Alexios I. Decline is arrested. Byzantium becomes involved in Crusades. Economic prosperity generates new wealth; literature and art reach new heights; however, in Anatolia, Turks become established.
1091 Imperial armies defeat Pechenegs at the Battle of Levounion.
1097 Recapture of Nicaea from the Turks by Byzantine armies and First Crusaders.
1097-1176 Byzantine armies recapture the coasts of Asia Minor from the Turks, and push east towards central Anatolia; Crusader Principality of Antioch becomes Byzantine protectorate.
1122 Byzantines defeat Pechenegs at the Battle of Beroia.
1167 Byzantine armies win decisive victory over the Hungarians at the Battle of Sirmium; Hungary becomes Byzantine client state.
1176 Battle of Myriokephalon. Manuel I Komnenos attempts to capture Konya, capital of Seljuk Turks; is forced to withdraw after destruction of his siege equipment. End of Byzantine attempts to recover Anatolian plateau.
1180 Death of Manuel I Komnenos. Decline of the Byzantine Empire recommences.
1185 A successful rebellion is organized in Bulgaria. Lands lost in the Balkans.
1204 Constantinople conquered by Crusaders; Latin Empire formed.
1261 Constantinople reconquered by Michael VIII Palaiologos, Byzantine emperor of Nicaea,
1453 Ottoman Turks conquer Constantinople. Death of Constantine XI last Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. End of the Byzantine Empire.

The Empire's native Greek name was Ρωμανία, Rōmanía, or Βασιλεία Ρωμαίων, Basileía Rōmaíōn, a direct translation of the Latin name of the Roman Empire, Imperium Romanorum. The term Byzantine Empire was introduced in western Europe in 1557, inspired from the city of Byzantium by German historian Hieronymus Wolf about a century after the fall of Constantinople who had taken it from the writing of 15th century Byzantine historian Laonicus Chalcocondyles. He presented a system of Byzantine historiography in his work Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, in order to "distinguish ancient Roman from medieval Greek history without drawing attention to their ancient predecessors".

Standardization of the term began gradually in the 18th century, when French authors such as Montesquieu began to popularize it. Hieronymus himself was influenced by the rift caused by the 9th century dispute between Byzantines and Franks. The Franks under Charlemagne's newly formed empire, and in concert with the Pope, attempted to legitimize their conquests by claiming inheritance of Roman rights in Italy. The Donation of Constantine, one of the most famous forged documents in history, played a crucial role in this. Henceforth, it was prevalent in the West to refer to the emperor in Constantinople not by the usual Imperator Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans) which was now reserved for the Frankish monarch, but as Imperator Graecorum (Emperor of the Greeks) and the land as Imperium Graecorum, Graecia, Terra Graecorum or even Imperium Constantinopolitanum. All of this was resented by the Byzantines, who viewed their Basileus as the only legitimate Roman Emperor.

The term 'Byzantine' was introduced in the English-speaking world by Sir George Finlay in 1854, in his work "History of the Byzantine and Greek Empires".

Identity, continuity, and consciousness

" Byzantium may be defined as a multi-ethnic empire that emerged as a Christian empire, soon comprised the Hellenized empire of the East and ended its thousand-year history, in 1453, as a Greek Orthodox state: An empire that became a nation, almost by the modern meaning of the word". For instance, the scholar, teacher and translator, John Argyropoulos (Constantinople, c.1415 - c.1490) addressed John VII as ‘Sun King of Hellas’ and urged the last Emperor, Constantine XI, to proclaim himself ‘King of the Hellenes’.


Map of the Roman Empire ca. 395, showing the dioceses and praetorian prefectures of Gaul, Italy, Illyricum and Oriens (east), roughly analogous to the four Tetrarchs' zones of influence after Diocletian's reforms.
Map of the Roman Empire ca. 395, showing the dioceses and praetorian prefectures of Gaul, Italy, Illyricum and Oriens (east), roughly analogous to the four Tetrarchs' zones of influence after Diocletian's reforms.

Caracalla's decree in 212, the Constitutio Antoniniana, extended citizenship outside of Italy to all free adult males in the entire Roman Empire, effectively raising provincial populations to equal status with the city of Rome itself. The importance of this decree is historical rather than political. It set the basis for integration where the economic and judicial mechanisms of the state could be applied around the entire Mediterranean as was once done from Latium into all of Italy.

The division of the Empire began with the Tetrarchy (quadrumvirate) in the late 3rd century with Emperor Diocletian, as an institution intended to more efficiently control the vast Roman Empire. He split the Empire in half, with two emperors (Augusti) ruling from Italy and Greece, each having as co-emperor a younger colleague of their own (Caesares). After Diocletian's voluntary abandonment of the throne, the Tetrarchic system began soon to crumble: the division continued in some form into the 4th century until 324 when Constantine I killed his last rival and became the sole emperor.

Constantine made two momentous and far-reaching decisions; one being when he decided to found a new capital city and chose Byzantium for that purpose, and the other being his adoption of Christianity. Rome had long since ceased to be an effective political capital of the Empire, being too far from the endangered northern frontiers and the wealthy Eastern provinces, and since the mid 3rd century had rarely seen Emperors on a regular basis. Byzantium was well positioned astride the trade routes between East and West, was a superb base from which to guard the crucial Danubian provinces, and was reasonably close to the Eastern frontiers. Constantine had experienced its potential as a fortress firsthand when it held out as the last pocket of resistance during his successful war against his Eastern rival Licinius (324).

In 330, Nova Roma was officially founded very near the location of Byzantium (which subsequently disappeared), however the populace commonly called it Constantinople (in Greek, Κωνσταντινούπολις, Kōnstantinoúpolis, meaning Constantine's City). Constantine began the building of the great fortified walls that were perhaps the most striking feature of the city. These walls, expanded and rebuilt in subsequent ages, combined with the fortified harbour and fleet, made Constantinople a virtually impregnable fortress, and certainly the most important fortress in the early Middle Ages. On several occasions in the hundreds of years to come, Constantinople would stand as the last bulwark of Roman civilization in the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed as the main bulwark of Christian civilization as a whole.

Byzantine Culture
Aristocracy &
Constantine I
Constantine I

The new capital became the centre of his administration. Constantine deprived the single praetorian prefect of his civil functions, introducing regional prefects with civil authority. During the 4th century, four great "regional prefectures" were also created.

Constantine is generally considered to be the first Christian emperor. Tradition holds that he received a vision at the Battle of Milvian Bridge promising him victory with the adaptation of the labarum, although delayed receiving baptism until shortly before his death. Whatever the actual case may be, there is no question that after 312 Constantine began to shower favors on Christianity, and the religion, which had been persecuted under Diocletian, became a "permitted religion" and steadily increased its power as years passed, apart from a short-lived return to pagan predominance under the emperor Julian. Although the empire was not yet "Byzantine" under Constantine, Christianity would become one of the defining characteristics of the Byzantine Empire, as opposed to the pagan Roman Empire.

Constantine also introduced a new stable gold coin, the solidus, which was to become the standard coin for centuries, and not only in the Byzantine Empire.

After Emperor Jovian was asphyxiated while hastening to Constantinople in 364, Valentinian was coronated emperor. He felt that he needed help to govern the large and troublesome empire, and, on March 28 of the same year, appointed his brother Valens as co-emperor in the palace of Hebdomon. Valens obtained the eastern half of the Balkan peninsula, Greece, Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor as far east as Persia. A defining moment in the history of the Empire that came during the rule of Emperor Valens was the Battle of Adrianople in 378 in which Valens and the best of the remaining Roman legions were killed by the Visigoths. This defeat has been proposed by some authorities as one possible date for dividing the ancient and medieval worlds. However, the Roman Empire was divided further by Valens' successor Theodosius I (also called "the Great"), who had ruled both parts since 392: following the dynastic principle well established by Constantine, in 395 Theodosius gave the two halves to his two sons Arcadius and Honorius; Arcadius became ruler of the eastern half, with his capital in Constantinople, and Honorius became ruler of the western half, with his capital in Ravenna. Theodosius was the last Roman emperor whose authority covered the entire traditional extent of the Roman Empire. At this point, it is common to refer to the empire as "Eastern Roman" rather than "Byzantine."

Early history

Eastern and Western Roman Empires, c. 476 AD.
Eastern and Western Roman Empires, c. 476 AD.

The Eastern Roman Empire was largely spared the difficulties of the west in the 3rd and 4th centuries (see Crisis of the Third Century) in part because urban culture was better established there and the richer east could more easily afford both to placate invaders with tribute and to pay barbarian mercenaries to serve in its armies. Throughout the 5th century, various invading armies overran the western half of the Roman Empire but refrained from ravaging the east. Theodosius II further fortified the walls of Constantinople, leaving the city impenetrable to attacks; it was to be preserved from foreign conquest until 1204. To spare the Eastern Roman Empire from the invasion of the Huns of Attila, Theodosius gave them subsidies, said to be 300kg (700lbs) of gold. Moreover, he favored merchants living in Constantinople who traded with the barbarians. His successor, Marcian, refused to continue to pay the great sum. However, Attila had already diverted his attention from the Western Roman Empire and died, in 453, after the Battle of Chalons. The Hunnic Empire collapsed and Constantinople was free from the menace of Attila. This started a profitable relationship between the Eastern Roman Empire and the remaining Huns. The Huns would eventually fight as mercenaries in Byzantine armies during the following centuries.

Leo I of the Byzantine Empire (401 - 474, reigned 457 - 474).
Leo I of the Byzantine Empire (401 - 474, reigned 457 - 474).

At the time since 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 barbarian chief favouring the rise of the Isaurians, a crude semi-barbarian tribe living in Roman territory, in southern Anatolia. Aspar and his son Ardabur were murdered in a riot in 471, and henceforth, Constantinople became free from foreign influences for centuries. Leo was also the first emperor to receive the crown not from a general or an officer, as evident in the Roman tradition, but from the hands of the patriarch of Constantinople. This habit became mandatory as time passed, and in the Middle Ages, the religious characteristic of the coronation had totally substituted the old form. In 468, Leo unsuccessfully attempted to reconquer North Africa from the Vandals. By that time, the Western Roman Empire was already restricted to Italy (Britain had fallen to Angles and Saxons, Spain fell to the Visigoths, Africa fell to the Vandals and Gaul fell to the Franks).

In 466, as a condition of his Isaurian alliance, Leo married his daughter Ariadne to the Isaurian Tarasicodissa, who took the name Zeno. When Leo died in 474, Zeno and Ariadne's minor son (Leo I's grandson) succeeded to the throne as Leo II, with Zeno acting 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 barbarian general Odoacer deposed the titular Western Emperor Romulus Augustus, but declined to replace him with another puppet. To recover Italy, Zeno could only negotiate with the Ostrogoths of Theodoric who had been settled in Moesia. He sent the barbarian king in Italy as magister militum per Italiam ("chief of staff for Italy"). After the fall of Odoacer in 493, Theodoric, who had lived in Constantinople during his youth, ruled over Italy on his own, maintaining a merely formal obedience to Zeno. He revealed himself as the most powerful Germanic king of that age, but his successors were greatly inferior to him and their kingdom of Italy started to decline in the 530s.

In 475, Zeno was deposed by a plot to elevate Basiliscus (the general who led Leo I's 468 invasion of North Africa) to the throne. Zeno recovered the throne twenty months later. However, Zeno had to face the threat coming from his Isaurian former official Illo and the other Isaurian, Leontius, who was also elected rival emperor. Isaurian prominence ended when an aged civil officer of Roman origin, Anastasius I, became emperor in 491 and after a long war defeated them in 498. Anastasius revealed himself to be an energetic reformer and an able administrator. He perfected Constantine I's coinage system by definitively setting the weight of the copper follis, the coin used in most everyday transactions. He also reformed the tax system, and abolished the hated chrysargyron tax in a manner that ensured that it could never be revived. The State Treasury contained the enormous sum of 320,000 pounds of gold when he died.

Age of Justinian I

Justinian I depicted on one of the famous mosaics of the St. Vitale church in Ravenna.
Justinian I depicted on one of the famous mosaics of the St. Vitale church in Ravenna.

The reign of Justinian I, which began in 527, saw a period of Byzantine expansion into former Roman territories. The 6th century also saw the beginning of a long series of conflicts with the Byzantine Empire's traditional early enemies, such as the Sassanid Persians, Slavs and Bulgars. Theological debates, such as over the question of Monophysitism, also caused civil unrest.

Justinian, the son of an Illyrian peasant, had perhaps already exerted effective control during the reign of his predecessor, Justin I (518–527). Justin I was a former officer in the imperial army who had been chief of the guards to Anastasius I, and had been proclaimed emperor (almost at the age of 70) after Anastasius' death. Justinian was a nephew of Justin and was later adopted as Justin's son. Justinian would become one of the most refined people of his century, inspired by the dream to re-establish Roman rule over all the Mediterranean world. He reformed the administration and the law, and with the help of brilliant generals such as Belisarius and Narses, he regained some of the lost Roman teritories in the west, conquering much of Italy, North Africa, and a small area in southern Spain.

In 532, attempting to secure his eastern frontier, Justinian signed a peace treaty with the Sassanid Shah Khosrau I agreeing to pay a large annual tribute to the Sassinids. The same year, the Nika riots erupted and lasted for one week in the capital. This was a most violent revolt, and nearly half of Constantinople was destroyed.

The western conquests began in 533, as Justinian's sent Belisarius to reclaim the former province of North Africa with a small army of 15,000 men, mainly mercenaries. An earlier expedition in 468 had been a failure, but this new venture was successful. The kingdom of the Vandals at Carthage lacked the strength of former times under King Gaiseric and the Vandals surrendered after few battles against Belisarius' forces. General Belisarius received a Roman triumph in Constantinople with the last Vandal king, Gelimer, as his prisoner. However, the reconquest of North Africa would take a few more years to stabilize. It was not until 548 that the major local independent tribes were subdued.

In 535, Justinian I launched his most ambitious campaign, the reconquest of Italy. Italy was under the rule of the Ostrogoths. He dispatched an army to march overland from Dalmatia while the main contingent, transported on ships and again under the command of General Belisarius, disembarked in Sicily easily conquering the island. The marches on the Italian mainland were initially victorious and the major cities, including Naples, Rome and the capital Ravenna, fell one after the other. The Goths were seemingly defeated and Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople in 541 by Justinian. Belisarius brought with him to Constantinople the Ostrogoth king Witiges as a prisoner in chains. However, the Ostrogoths and their supporters were soon reunited under the energetic command of Totila. The ensuing Gothic Wars were an exhausting series of sieges, battles and retreats which consumed almost all the Byzantine and Italian fiscal resources, impoverishing much of the countryside. Belisarius was eventually recalled by Justinian, who had lost trust in his commander. At a certain point, the Byzantines seemed to be on the verge of losing all the gained possessions. After having neglected to provide sufficient financial and logistical support to the desperate troops under Belisarius' former command, in the summer of 552 Justinian gathered a massive army of 35,000 men (mostly Asian and Germanic mercenaries) to contribute to the war effort. The astute and diplomatic eunuch Narses was chosen for the command. Totila was defeated and died at the Battle of Busta Gallorum. Totila's successor, Teias, was likewise defeated at the Battle of Mons Lactarius (central Italy, October 552). Despite continuing resistance from a few Goth garrisons, and two subsequent invasions by the Franks and Alamanni, the war for the reconquest of the Italian peninsula came to an end.

Map of the Byzantine Empire around 550
Map of the Byzantine Empire around 550

Justinian's program of reconquest was further extended in 554 when a Byzantine army managed to seize a small part of Spain from the Visigoths. All the main Mediterranean islands were also now under Byzantine control. Aside from these conquests, Justinian revised the ancient Roman legal code in the new Corpus Juris Civilis. Even though the laws were still written in Latin, the language itself was becoming archaic and poorly understood even by those who wrote the new code. Under Justinian's reign, the Church of Hagia Sofia ("Holy Wisdom"), the most famous and important of the Empire, was rebuilt in the 530s, having been destroyed during the Nika riots. The 6th century was also a time of flourishing culture and even though Justinian closed the university at Athens, the Empire produced notable people such as the epic poet Nonnus, the lyric poet Paul the Silentiary, the historian Procopius, the natural philosopher John Philoponus among others.

The conquests in the west meant that other parts of the Empire were left almost unguarded even though Justinian was a great builder of fortifications in Byzantine territories throughout his reign. Khosrau I had, as early as 540, broken the pact previously signed with Justinian and plundered Antiochia. The only way Justinian could forestall him was to increase the sum he paid to the Persians every year. The Balkans were subjected to repeated incursions where Slavs had first crossed the imperial frontiers during the reign of Justin I. The Slavs took advantage of the sparsely-deployed Byzantine troops and pressed on as far as the Gulf of Corinth. The Kutrigur Bulgars had also attacked in 540. The Slavs invaded Thrace in 545 and in 548 assaulted Dyrrachium, an important port on the Adriatic Sea. In 550, the Sclaveni pushed on as far to reach within 65 kilometers of Constantinople itself. In 559, the Eastern Roman Empire found itself unable to repel a great invasion of Kutrigurs and Sclaveni. Divided in three columns, the invaders reached Thermopylae, the Gallipoli peninsula and the suburbs of Constantinople. The Slavs feared the intact power of the Danube Byzantine fleet and of the Utigurs (paid by the Byzantines themselves) more than the resistance of the ill-prepared Byzantine imperial army. The Empire was safe, but in the following years the Byzantine control in the Balkans was severely reduced.

Soon after the death of Justinian in 565, the Germanic Lombards, a former imperial foederati tribe, invaded and conquered much of Italy. The Visigoths conquered Cordoba, the main Byzantine city in Spain, first in 572 and then definitively in 584. The last Byzantine strongholds in Spain were swept away twenty years later. The Turks emerged in Crimea, and, in 577, a horde of some 100,000 Slavs had invaded Thrace and Illyricum. Sirmium, the most important Roman city on the Danube, was lost in 582, but the Byzantines managed to maintain control of the river for several more years even though they increasingly lost control of the inner provinces.

Justinian's successor, Justin II, refused to pay Justinian's tribute to the Sassanid Empire. This resulted in a long and costly war which lasted until the reign of his successors Tiberius II and Maurice, focused over the control over the disputed territory of Armenia. Fortunately for the Byzantines, the Persian Empire was weakend by a civil war. Maurice was able to take advantage of his friendship with the new king Khosrau II (whose disputed accession to the Persian throne had been assisted by Maurice) in order to sign a favorable peace treaty in 591. This treaty gave the Byzantine Empire control over much of western Armenia. Maurice reorganized the remaining Byzantine possessions in the west into two Exarchates, the Ravenna and the Carthage. Maurice increased the Exarchates' self-defense capabilities and delegated them to civil authorities.

The Avars and later the Bulgars overwhelmed much of the Balkans, and in the early 7th century the Sassanids invaded and conquered Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Armenia. The Persians were eventually defeated and the territories were recovered by Emperor Heraclius in 627. However, the unexpected appearance of the Arabs, newly united and converted to Islam overwhelmed an Empire exhausted from the Persian wars, and the southern provinces were overrun.

The Byzantine Empire's most catastrophic defeat of this period was the Battle of Yarmuk, fought in Syria. Heraclius and the military governors of Syria were slow to respond to the new threat, and Byzantine Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and the Exarchate of Africa were incorporated into the Muslim Caliphate in the 7th century, a process which was completed with the fall of Carthage in 698. The Byzantines made little attempt to regain the lost provinces, dominated as they were by Monophysitism.

The Lombards continued to expand in northern Italy, taking Liguria in 640 and conquering most of the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751, leaving the Byzantines with control of only small areas around the toe and heel of Italy, plus some semi-independent coastal cities like Venice, Naples, Amalfi and Gaeta.

Fight for survival

The Byzantine Empire at the accession of Leo III, c. 717
The Byzantine Empire at the accession of Leo III, c. 717

The Empire's loss of territory was offset to a degree by consolidation and an increased uniformity of rule. Emperor Heraclius made Greek the official language, and the Emperor's Latin title, Augustus, was replaced with the Greek Basileus. Heraclius' reforms widened the cultural gap between the Eastern Roman Empire and its earlier predecessor, as well as the former imperial lands of western Europe. The reign of Heraclius is often taken to be the definitive break between the "Eastern Roman" and "Byzantine" Empires.

Within the empire, the southern provinces differed significantly in culture and practice from those in the north, observing Monophysite Christianity rather than Chalcedonian Orthodox. The loss of the southern territories to the Arabs further strengthened Orthodox practice in the remaining provinces.

Constans II (reigned 641–668) subdivided the empire into a system of military provinces called themes in an attempt to improve local responses to the threat of constant assaults. Outside of the capital, urban life declined, while Constantinople grew to become the largest city in the Christian world.

During Constans' reign the Byzantines completely withdrew from Egypt, and the Arabs launched numerous attacks on the islands of the Mediterranean Sea and Aegean Sea. Constans sent a fleet to attack the Arabs at Finike in 655, but was defeated: 500 Byzantine ships were destroyed in the battle, and the emperor himself came close to being killed. Only an Arabic civil war put an end to the planned Muslim assault on Constantinople.

Restored section of the fortifications that protected Constantinople during the medieval period.
Restored section of the fortifications that protected Constantinople during the medieval period.

In 658, the imperial army defeated the Slavs on the Danube River, temporarily slowing their advance into the Balkans. Constans, having attracted the hatred of the people of Constantinople, temporarily moved the capital to Syracuse. In 661, he launched an attack on the Lombard Duchy of Benevento in southern Italy. After a series of victories and defeats, he retreated to Naples. He was the last Eastern emperor to visit Rome as a Byzantine possession, though later emperors would return in the 15th century to beg for help against the Ottomans. Constans was assassinated in Sicily shortly after this campaign, and no serious attempt was made to reconquer southern Italy until the 9th century.

Arab attempts to conquer Constantinople were frustrated by the secret Byzantine weapon Greek fire (the exact composition of which remains a mystery to this day), the extensive city fortifications, and the skill of both generals and warrior-emperors such as Leo the Isaurian (r. 717–741). After the assaults were repelled, these defeats, combined with the Berber Rebellion, and the Arab defeat in Europe at the Battle of Tours, led to the overthrow of the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of the Zab in 750. The subsequent fracture of the Muslim world, leaving the Umayyads in control of Spain while being eclipsed by the Abbasids in the remainder of the Islamic empire, allowed the Byzantines to stem their decline and continue to recover.

In his landmark work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon depicted the Byzantine Empire of this time as effete and decadent. However, an alternative examination of the Byzantine Empire reveals a military superpower in the early Middle Ages. Scholars point to the empire's heavy cavalry (the cataphracts), its subsidy (albeit inconsistently) of a free and well-to-do peasant class forming the basis for cavalry recruitment, its extraordinarily in-depth defense systems (the themes), and its use of subsidies to make its enemies fight each other. Other factors include the empire's prowess at intelligence-gathering, a communications and logistics system based on mule trains, a superior navy (although often under funded), and rational military strategies and doctrines (not dissimilar to those of Sun Tzu) that emphasized stealth, surprise, swift maneuvering and the marshaling of overwhelming force at the time and place of the Byzantine commander's choosing.

The 8th century was dominated by controversy and religious division over iconoclasm. Icons were banned by Emperor Leo III, leading to revolts by iconodules (supporters of icons) throughout the empire. After the efforts of Empress Irene, the Second Council of Nicaea met in 787 and affirmed that icons could be venerated but not worshipped. Irene also attempted a marriage alliance with Charlemagne the Frank, recently crowned by the Pope as Emperor of the West. In theory, this alliance would have united the two 'Roman' empires and created a European superpower comparable in strength to ancient Rome. In practice, the two empires were so different that it is hard to see how such a union could have succeeded. Regardless, these plans were abandoned when Irene was deposed.

The iconoclast controversy returned in the early 9th century, only to be resolved once more in 843 during the regency of Empress Theodora, who restored the icons. These controversies further contributed to the disintegrating relations with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, both of which continued to increase their independence and power.

Golden age

The Byzantine Empire at the accession of Basil I, c. 867
The Byzantine Empire at the accession of Basil I, c. 867

The Byzantine Empire reached its height under the Macedonian emperors of the late 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries. During these years the Empire held out against pressure from the Roman church to remove Patriarch Photios, and gained control over the Adriatic Sea, southern Italy, and all of Bulgaria as it was under the Bulgarian tsar Samuel. The cities of the empire expanded, and prosperity was able to spread across the provinces thanks to the empire's new-found security. The population of the empire rose, and production increased, stimulating new demand while also helping to encourage trade. Culturally, this was a productive period of Byzantine history, as there was considerable growth in education and learning. Ancient texts were preserved and patiently re-copied. Byzantine art flourished, and brilliant mosaics graced the interiors of new churches, which were being built across the empire in this period.

Internal developments

Although traditionally attributed to Basil I (867-886), initiator of the Macedonian dynasty, the "Byzantine renaissance" has been more recently ascribed largely to the reforms of his predecessor, Michael III (842-867) and his wife's counsellor, the erudite Theoktistos. The latter in particular favoured culture at the court, and, with a careful financial policy, increased steadily the gold reserves of the Empire. The rise of the Macedonian dynasty coincided with internal developments which strengthened the religious unity of the empire. The iconoclast movement was experiencing a steep decline: this favoured its soft suppression by the emperors and the reconciliation of the religious strife that had drained the imperial resources in the previous centuries. Despite occasional tactical defeats, the administrative, legislative, cultural and economic situation continued to improve under Basil's successors, especially with Romanos I Lekapenos (920-944). The theme military subdivision reached its definitive form in this period, with new ones added in recognition of the new conquests. The church establishment began to support loyally the imperial cause, and the power of the landowning class was limited in favour of agricultural small holders, who made up an important part of the military force of the Empire. These favourable conditions contributed to the increasing ability of the emperors to wage war against the Arabs.

Wars against the Muslims

By 867, the empire had stabilised its position in both the east and the west, while the success of its defensive military structure had enabled the emperors to begin planning wars of reconquest in the east. However, the reconquest process began with variable fortunes. The temporary reconquest of Crete (843-843) was followed by a crushing Byzantine defeat on the Bosphorus, while the emperors were unable to prevent the ongoing gradual Muslim conquest of Sicily (827-902). Using present day Tunisia as their launching pad, the Muslims conquered Palermo in 831, Messina in 842, Enna in 859, Syracuse in 878, Catania in 900 and the final Greek stronghold, the fortress of Taormina, in 902.

These drawbacks were later counterbalanced by a victorious expedition against Damietta in Egypt (856), the defeat of the Emir of Melitene (863), the confirmation of the imperial authority over Dalmatia (867) and Basil I's offensives towards the Euphrates (870s).

The threat from the Muslims was meanwhile reduced by inner struggles and by the rise of the Turks in the east, but the Byzantine empire found another enemy in the Paulician sect, which had found a large following in the eastern provinces of the Empire and often fought under the Arab flag. It took several campaigns to subdue the Paulicians, who were eventually defeated by Basil I.

However, in 904, disaster struck the empire when its second city, Thessalonica, was sacked by an Arab fleet under a Byzantine renegade. The Byzantines responded by destroying an Arab fleet, in 908, and sacking the city of Laodicea in Syria two years later. Despite this revenge, the Byzantines were still unable to strike a decisive blow against the Muslims, who inflicted a crushing defeat on the imperial forces as they attempted to regain Crete in 911.

The situation on the border with the Arab territories remained fluid, with the Byzantines alternatively on the offensive or defensive. The Russians, who appeared near Constantinople for the first time in 860, were another new enemy to face. In 941 they appeared on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, but this time they were crushed, showing the improvements in the Byzantine military position after 907, when only diplomacy had been able to push back the invaders. The vanquisher of the Russians was the famous general John Kourkouas, who continued the offensive with other noteworthy victories in Mesopotamia (943): these culminated in the reconquest of Edessa (944), which was especially celebrated for the return to Constantinople of the venerated Mandylion relic.

The soldier emperors Nikephoros II Phokas (reigned 963-969) and John I Tzimiskes (969-976) expanded the empire well into Syria, defeating the emirs of north-west Iraq and reconquering Crete and Cyprus. At one point under John, the empire's armies even threatened Jerusalem, far to the south. The emirate of Aleppo and its neighbours became vassals of the empire in the east, where the greatest threat to the empire was the Egyptian Fatimid kingdom.

Wars against the Bulgars

Emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer (976-1025)
Emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer (976-1025)

The traditional struggle with the See of Rome continued, spurred by the question of religious supremacy over the newly Christianized Bulgaria. This caused the invasion of the powerful Tsar Simeon I in 894, but this was pushed back by the Byzantine diplomacy, which called the help of the Hungarians. However, the Byzantines were in turn defeated at the Battle of Bulgarophigon (896), and obliged to pay annual subsides to the Bulgars. Later (912) Simeon even had the Byzantines grant him the crown of basileus of Bulgaria and had the young emperor Constantine VII marry one of his daughters. When a revolt in Constantinople halted his dynastic project, he again invaded Thrace and conquered Hadrianopolis.

A great imperial expedition under Leo Phokas and Romanos Lekapenos ended again with a crushing Byzantine defeat (917), and the following year the Bulgars were free to ravage northern Greece up to Corinth. Adranopolis was captured again in 923 and in 924 a Bulgar army besieged Constantinople. The situation in the Balkans improved only after Simeon's death in 927.

Under the emperor Basil II (reigned 976-1025), the Bulgarians, who had conquered much of the Balkans from the Byzantines since their arrival three hundred years previously, became the target of annual campaigns by the Byzantine army. The war was to drag on for nearly twenty years, but eventually at the Battle of Kleidon the Bulgarians were completely defeated. The Bulgarian army was captured, and it is said that 99 out of every 100 men were blinded, with the remaining hundredth man left with one eye so as to lead his compatriots home. When Samuil of Bulgaria saw the broken remains of his once gallant army, he died of shock. In 1014, Bulgaria surrendered, and became part of the empire. This stunning victory restored to the empire the Danube frontier, which had not been held since the days of the emperor Heraclius (reigned 610-641).

The empire also gained a new ally at this time in the new Varangian state in Kiev, from which the empire received an important mercenary force, the Varangian Guard, in exchange for Basil's sister Anna as a wife for Vladimir I of Kiev. Basil II also had relatives marry leaders of the Holy Roman Empire.


The Byzantine Empire under Basil II, c. 1025
The Byzantine Empire under Basil II, c. 1025

The Byzantine Empire now stretched from Azerbaijan and Armenia in the east, to Calabria in Southern Italy to the west. Many successes had been achieved, ranging from the conquest of Bulgaria, to the annexation of Georgia and Armenia, to the total annihilation of an invading force of Egyptians outside Antioch. Yet even these victories were not enough; Basil considered the continued Arab occupation of Sicily (it had been lost to the Arabs c.902), to be an outrage. Accordingly, he planned to reconquer the island, which had belonged to the empire for over three hundred years (c.550-c.900). However, his death in 1025 put an end to the project. Basil's reign was the culmination of over three hundred years of desperate struggle, which had seen the Byzantine empire fighting for its very survival, and reaching the nadir of its fortunes with two sieges of Constantinople in 674-78, and 717-18. Yet the empire had clawed its way back from the brink of destruction, and by 1025 Byzantium was once again the greatest power in the Mediterranean. Such was the impression that the formidable Byzantine army built up during this period, that the mere threat of an imperial army marching eastwards was enough to keep local rulers in line.

The 11th century was also momentous for its religious events. In 1054, relations between Greek-speaking Eastern and Latin-speaking Western traditions within the Christian Church reached a terminal crisis. Although there was a formal declaration of institutional separation, on July 16, when three papal legates entered the Hagia Sophia during mass on a Saturday afternoon and placed a bull (official papal document) of excommunication on the altar, the so-called Great Schism actually was the culmination of centuries of gradual separation. The schism was purported to stem from the Eastern Church's refusal to accept the western doctrine that the Holy Spirit came from the Father and the Son ( filioque), and not the Father alone; in reality, however, there were a number of political interests involved in the division of the Christian Church. From this split, the modern Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches arose. This development was to be fateful indeed for the Byzantine empire.

Crisis and fragmentation

Byzantium soon fell into a period of difficulties, caused to a large extent by the growth of the aristocracy, which undermined the theme system. The succession of weak rulers who succeeded Basil II after 1025 disbanded the large armies which had been defending the eastern provinces from attack; instead gold was stockpiled in Constantinople, ostensibly in order to hire mercenaries should troubles arise. In fact, most of the money was frittered away in the form of gifts to favourites of the emperor, extravagant court banquets, and expensive luxuries for the imperial family.

Nicephorus III Botaniates, Byzantine emperor from 1078 to 1081
Nicephorus III Botaniates, Byzantine emperor from 1078 to 1081

Meanwhile, the remnants of the once-formidable armed forces were allowed to decay, to the point where they were no longer capable of functioning as an army. Elderly men with ill-maintained equipment mixed with new recruits who had never participated in a training exercise. Facing its old enemies, the Holy Roman Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate, the Eastern Roman Empire might have recovered, but around the same time new invaders appeared on the scene who had little reason to respect its reputation.

In 1040, the Normans, originally landless mercenaries from northern parts of Europe in search of plunder, began attacking the Byzantine strongholds in southern Italy. In order to deal with them, a mixed force of mercenaries and conscripts under the formidable George Maniakes was sent to Italy in 1042. Maniakes and his army engulfed the land in a fury of destruction, leaving a trail of burning ruins and shattered fortresses behind them. Any who opposed this terrifying advance were tortured to death; many were buried alive. However, before he could complete his campaign of annihilation, the general was recalled to Constantinople due to palace intrigue. Gripped by murderous rage at a serious of outrages against his wife and property by one of his rivals, he was proclaimed emperor by his troops, and led them across the Adriatic to victory against a loyalist army. However, a mortal wound led to his death shortly afterwards. With the opposition absent in the Balkans, the Normans were able to complete the expulsion of the Byzantines from Italy by 1071.

It was in Asia Minor, however, that the greatest disaster would take place. The Seljuk Turks, who were mainly interested in defeating Egypt under the Fatimids, nevertheless conducted a series of damaging raids into Armenia and eastern Anatolia, which was the main recruiting ground for Byzantine armies. With the imperial armies weakened by years of insufficient funding and civil warfare, Emperor Romanos Diogenes realised that a time of re-structuring and re-equipment was necessary. Consequently, he attempted to lead a defensive campaign in the east until his forces had recovered enough to defeat the Seljuks. However, due to treachery from his opponents who deserted him on the field of battle, he suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of Alp Arslan (Sultan of the Seljuk Turks) at Manzikert in 1071. Romanos was captured, and, although the Sultan's peace terms were not excessive, the battle was catastrophic for the Byzantine Empire in another way.

On his release, Romanos found that his enemies had conspired against him to place their own candidate on the throne in his absence. After two defeats in battle against the rebels, Romanos surrendered and suffered a horrific death by torture. The new ruler, Michael Doukas, refused to honour the treaty that had been signed by Romanos. In response, the Turks began to move into Anatolia in 1073, while the collapse of the old defensive system meant that they met no opposition. To make matters worse, chaos reigned as the empire's remaining resources were squandered in a series of disastrous civil wars. Thousands of Turkoman tribesmen crossed the unguarded frontier and moved into Anatolia. By 1080, an area of 30,000 square miles had been lost to the empire.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the significance of these events, as within less than a decade more than half of the manpower of the empire had been lost, along with much of its grain supply. Thus, the battle of Manzikert resulted in the greatest blow to the empire in its 700 years of history.

Komnenian dynasty and the crusaders

The Byzantine Empire at the accession of Alexios I Komnenos, c. 1081
The Byzantine Empire at the accession of Alexios I Komnenos, c. 1081

Alexios I Komnenos

After Manzikert, a partial recovery was made possible due to the efforts of the Komnenian dynasty. This is sometimes referred to as the Komnenian restoration. The first emperor of this royal line was Alexios I Komnenos (whose life and policies would be described by his daughter Anna Komnene in the Alexiad). Alexios' long reign of nearly 37 years was full of struggle. At his accession in 1081, the Byzantine Empire was in chaos after a prolonged period of civil war resulting from the defeat at Manzikert.

At the very outset of his reign, Alexios had to meet the formidable attack of the Normans under Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemund of Taranto, who took Dyrrhachium and Corfu, and laid siege to Larissa in Thessaly (see Battle of Dyrrhachium). Alexios led his forces in person against the Normans, yet despite his best efforts his army was destroyed in the field. Alexios himself was wounded in the battle, and for a time it looked as though the empire's final hour had come. However, at the moment of supreme crisis fate relented on the unfortunate Alexios, and the Norman danger was ended for the time being with Robert Guiscard's death in 1085.

However, Alexios's trials and tribulations were only just beginning. At the very moment when the Emperor urgently needed to raise as much revenue as possible from his shattered empire, taxation and the economy were in complete disarray. Inflation was spiralling out of control, the coinage was heavily debased, the fiscal system was confused (there were six different nomismata in circulation), and the imperial treasury was empty. In desperation, Alexios had been forced to finance his campaign against the Normans by using the wealth of the Orthodox Church, which had been put at his disposal by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

This coin was struck by Alexios during his war against Robert Guiscard
This coin was struck by Alexios during his war against Robert Guiscard

In 1087, Alexios faced a new invasion. This time, the invaders consisted of a horde of 80,000 Pechenegs from north of the Danube, and they were heading for Constantinople. Without enough troops to repel this new threat, Alexios used diplomacy to achieve a victory against the odds. Having bribed the Cumans, another barbarian tribe, to come to his aid, he advanced against the Pechenegs, who were caught by surprise and annihilated at the Battle of Levounion on 28 April 1091.

With stability at last achieved in the west, Alexios now had a chance to begin solving his severe economic difficulties and the disintegration of the empire's traditional defences. In order to reestablish the army, Alexios began to build a new force on the basis of feudal grants ( próniai) and prepared a to advance against the Seljuks, who had conquered Asia Minor and were now established at Nicaea.

However, he still did not have enough manpower to recover the lost territories in Asia Minor. Having been impressed by the abilities of the Norman cavalry at Dyrrhachium, he sent his ambassadors west to ask for reinforcements from Europe. The ambassadors dispatched their mission with great success - at the Council of Piacenza in 1095, Pope Urban II was impressed by Alexios's appeal for help, which spoke of the suffering of the Christians of the east, and hinted at a possible union of the eastern and western churches. Pope Urban was concerned with increasing restlessness of the martial nobility in Western Europe, who, currently deprived of major enemies, were causing chaos throughout the countryside. Alexios's appeal offered a means not only to redirect the energy of the knights to benefit the Church, but also to consolidate the authority of the Pope over Christendom and to gain the east for the See of Rome.

First Crusade

Medieval manuscript depicting the Capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade
Medieval manuscript depicting the Capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade

On 27 November 1095, Urban II called together the Council of Clermont in France. There, amid a crowd of thousands who had come to hear his words, he urged all those present to take up arms under the banner of the Cross and launch a holy war to recover Jerusalem and the east from the 'infidel' Muslims. Indulgences were to be granted to all those who took part in the great enterprise. Many promised to carry out the Pope's command, and word of the Crusade soon spread across western Europe.

Alexios had anticipated help in the form of mercenary forces from the West, and was totally unprepared for the immense and undisciplined hosts which soon arrived, to his consternation and embarrassment. The first group, under Peter the Hermit, he sent to Asia Minor, ordering them to stay close to the coast and await reinforcements. However, the unruly crusaders refused to listen and began looting and pillaging the local Christian inhabitants. As they marched on Nicaea, in 1096, they were caught by the Turks and massacred almost to the last man.

The second, "official" host of knights, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, Alexios also sent into Asia, promising to supply them with provisions in return for an oath of loyalty. By their victories, Alexios was able to recover for the Byzantine Empire a number of important cities and islands — Nicaea, Chios, Rhodes, Smyrna, Ephesus, Philadelphia, Sardis, and in fact much of western Asia Minor (1097–1099). This is ascribed by his daughter Anna as a credit to his policy and diplomacy, but good relations were not to last. The crusaders believed their oaths were made invalid when Alexios did not help them during the siege of Antioch (he had in fact set out on the road to Antioch, but had been persuaded to turn back by Stephen of Blois, who assured him that all was lost and that the expedition had already failed); Bohemund, who had set himself up as Prince of Antioch, briefly went to war with Alexios, but agreed to become Alexios' vassal under the Treaty of Devol in 1108.

Slow recovery

Despite his many successes, during the last twenty years of his life, Alexios lost much of his popularity. This was largely due to the harsh measures he was forced to take in order to save the embattled empire. Conscription was introduced, causing resentment among the peasantry, despite the pressing need for new recruits to the imperial army. In order to restore the imperial treasury, Alexios took measures to tax the aristocracy heavily; he also cancelled many of the exemptions from taxation that the church had previously enjoyed. In order to ensure that all taxes were paid in full, and to halt the cycle of debasement and inflation, he completely reformed the coinage, issuing a new gold hyperpyron (highly refined) coin for the purpose. By 1109, he had managed to restore order by working out a proper rate of exchange for the whole coinage. His new hyperpyron would be the standard Byzantine coin for the next two hundred years.

The final years of Alexios's reign were marked by persecution of the followers of the Paulician and Bogomil heresies — one of his last acts was to burn at the stake the Bogomil leader, Basil the Physician, with whom he had engaged in a theological controversy; by renewed struggles with the Turks (1110–1117); and by anxieties as to the succession, which his wife Irene wished to alter in favour of her daughter Anna's husband, Nikephorus Bryennios, for whose benefit the special title panhypersebastos ("honored above all") was created. This intrigue disturbed even his dying hours.

Nevertheless, despite the unpopularity of some of his measures, Alexios' efforts had been vital to the survival of the empire. Financially and militarily bankrupt, and facing wave after wave of foreign invasion, the empire he inherited had been on the point of collapse. His long struggle to protect and restore the strength of the empire had been exhausting; however, because of his heroic and tireless actions, Alexios' successors inherited a viable state, with both the internal stability, and the military and financial resources, to expand in the future.

John's restoration of the empire

Emperor John II Komnenos. During his reign (1118-1143) he earned near universal respect, even from the Crusaders, for his courage, dedication and piety.
Emperor John II Komnenos. During his reign (1118-1143) he earned near universal respect, even from the Crusaders, for his courage, dedication and piety.

Alexios' son John II Komnenos succeeded him in 1118, and was to rule until 1143. On account of his mild and just reign he has been called the Byzantine Marcus Aurelius. John was unusual for his lack of cruelty — despite his long reign, he never had anyone killed or blinded. He was loved by his subjects, who gave him the name 'John the Good'. He was also an energetic campaigner, spending much of his life in army camps and personally supervising sieges.

During John's reign Byzantium faced many difficulties: enemies confronted the empire on all sides. An invasion of nomadic horsemen from the north threatened Byzantine control in the Balkans. The Turks were harassing Byzantine territory in Asia Minor. However, John soon proved himself just as determined and energetic as his predecessor Alexios. At the Battle of Beroia, John personally led the imperial armies against the Pecheneg invader. With the aid of the emperor's elite troops, the Varangian Guard, the horsemen were decisively crushed. The emperor's victory was so severe that the Pechenegs soon disappeared as an independent people. The Danube frontier had been secured.

John was then able to concentrate on Asia Minor, which became the focus of his attention for most of his reign. The Turks were pressing forward against the Byzantine frontier, and John was determined to drive them back. Thanks to John's energetic campaigning, Turkish attempts at expansion in Asia Minor were halted, and John prepared to take the fight to the enemy. In order to restore the region to Byzantine control, John led a series of campaigns against the Turks, one of which resulted in the reconquest of the ancestral home of the Komneni at Kastamonu. John quickly earned a formidable reputation as a wall-breaker, taking stronghold after stronghold from his enemies. Regions which had been lost to the empire ever since Manzikert were recovered and garrisoned. Yet resistance, particularly from the Danishmends of the north-east, was strong, and the difficult nature of holding down the new conquests is illustrated by the fact that Kastamonu was recaptured by the Turks even as John was in Constantinople celebrating its return to Byzantine rule. John persevered, however, and Kastamonu was soon changed hands once more. John advanced into north eastern Anatolia, provoking the Turks to attack his army. Yet once again John's forces were able to maintain their cohesion, and the Turkish attempt to inflict a second Manzikert on the emperor's army backfired when the Sultan, discredited by his failure to defeat John, was murdered by his own people.

John, like Basil II before him, was a slow but steady campaigner. His armies made careful, measured gains over time, rarely exposing themselves to excessive risks, but nevertheless advancing inexorably towards their objectives. However, the Turks were resilient, and they did not allow themselves to be decisively defeated in any one engagement. They knew that it was difficult for the emperor to remain in one theatre of war for a long time, as events elsewhere often intervened that required his attention.

John consolidated his conquests and the existing Byzantine holdings in Asia by the building of a series of forts. Historian Paul Magdalino explains this process in his book "The empire of Manuel Komnenos" by placing it in the context of the Komnenian restoration of the Byzantine empire as a whole; he points out that while John's father Alexios had fortified places on the coast, John now expanded Byzantine control into the interior by fortifying places such as Lopadion, Achyraous and Laodicea, which guarded the approaches to the valleys and coastlands of Asia Minor. This restoration of order under John enabled agricultural prosperity to begin a recovery that would eventually restore these war torn regions to their former status as a productive and valuable part of the Byzantine empire.

Towards the end of his reign, John made a concerted effort to secure Antioch. On the way, he captured the southern coast of Asia Minor and Cilicia. He advanced into Syria at the head of his veteran army, which had been seasoned by a lifetime of campaigning. Although John fought hard for the Christian cause in the campaign in Syria, there was a famous incident where his allies, Prince Raymond of Antioch and Count Joscelin II of Edessa, sat around playing dice while John pressed the siege of an enemy town. These Crusader Princes were suspicious of each other and of John, and neither wanted the other to gain from participating in the campaign, while Raymond also wanted to hold on to Antioch, which he had agreed to hand over to John if the campaign was successful. Ultimately, Joscelin and Raymond conspired to keep John out of Antioch, and while he was preparing to lead a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and a further campaign, he accidentally grazed his hand on a poison arrow while out hunting. The poison set in, and shortly afterwards he died.

Historian J. Birkenmeier has recently argued that John's reign was the most successful of the Komnenian period. In "The development of the Komnenian army 1081-1180", he stresses the wisdom of John's approach to warfare, which focused on siege warfare rather than risky pitched battles. Birkenmeier argues that John's strategy of launching annual campaigns with limited, realistic objectives was a more sensible one than that followed by his son Manuel I. According to this view, John's campaigns benefited the Byzantine Empire because they protected the empire's heartland from attack while gradually extending its territory in Asia Minor. The Turks were forced onto the defensive, while John kept his diplomatic situation relatively simple by allying with the Western Emperor against the Normans of Sicily.

Overall, what is clear is that John II Komnenos left the empire a great deal better off than he had found it. Substantial territories had been recovered, and his successes against the invading Petchenegs, Serbs and Seljuk Turks, along with his attempts to establish Byzantine suzerainty over the Crusader States in Antioch and Edessa, did much to restore the reputation of his empire. His careful, methodical approach to warfare had protected the empire from the risk of sudden defeats, while his determination and skill had allowed him to rack up a long list of successful sieges and assaults against enemy strongholds. By the time of his death, he had earned near universal respect, even from the Crusaders, for his courage, dedication and piety. His early death meant his work went unfinished — his last campaign might well have resulted in real gains for Byzantium and the Christian cause.

Manuel I Komnenos

Map of the Byzantine Empire under Manuel Komnenos, c.1170. By this time, the empire was once again the most powerful state in the Mediterranean, with client states stretching from Hungary to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and a network of allies and diplomatic contacts stretching from Aragon, France, Germany, Pisa, Genoa and Rome in the west, to Antioch, Jerusalem, Konya and Damascus in the east.
Map of the Byzantine Empire under Manuel Komnenos, c.1170. By this time, the empire was once again the most powerful state in the Mediterranean, with client states stretching from Hungary to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and a network of allies and diplomatic contacts stretching from Aragon, France, Germany, Pisa, Genoa and Rome in the west, to Antioch, Jerusalem, Konya and Damascus in the east.

John's chosen heir was his fourth son, Manuel I Komnenos. According to Niketas Choniates, a historian of Byzantium, Manuel was chosen over his elder surviving brother because of his ability to listen carefully to advice. Manuel was known for his lively and charismatic personality; he was known for his love for all things from Western Europe. Manuel arranged jousting matches, even participating in them, an unusual experience for the Byzantines. Manuel himself is generally considered the most brilliant of the four emperors of the Komnenos dynasty; unusual for a Byzantine ruler, his reputation was particularly good in the west and the Crusader states, especially after his death. The Latin historian William of Tyre described Manuel as "beloved of God... a great-souled man of incomparable energy", [whose] "memory will ever be held in benediction". Manuel was further extolled by Robert of Clari as a "generous and worthy man".

Manuel dedicated himself to restore the glory of his empire, and to regain the status of superpower inside the Mediterranean world. Manuel's foreign policy was both ambitious and expansive, reaching out to all corners of the Mediterranean world. He made several alliances, with the Pope and Western Christian kingdoms, and successfully handled the passage of the potential dangerous Second Crusade through his empire, establishing a Byzantine protectorate over the Crusader kingdoms of Outremer.

Manuel campaigned aggressively against his neighbours both in the west and in the east; facing Muslims in Palestine, he allied himself with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and sent a large fleet to participate in a combined invasion of Fatimid Egypt. In an effort to restore Byzantine control over the ports of southern Italy, he sent an expedition to invade Italy in 1155. Operating as part of a coalition of Byzantine, rebel, and Papal forces, Manuel's armies achieved initial success. However, disputes within the coalition led to the eventual failure of the expedition. Despite this military setback, Manuel was undeterred, and his armies successfully invaded the Kingdom of Hungary in 1167, defeating the Hungarians at the Battle of Sirmium. Manuel was highly successful in the Balkans and Hungary - historian Paul Magdalino argues that no emperor had dominated the region so effectively since Late Antiquity.

In the east, however, Manuel's achievements are more ambiguous. Manuel suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Myriokephalon, in 1176, against the Turks. He and his army were marching against Konya, the Turkish capital, when they were ambushed; the ensuing defeat has since entered the popular imagination as a legendary disaster. Exaggerated accounts of the battle often describe the destruction of the entire Byzantine army, and with it the end of Byzantine power and influence. However, the modern consensus among Byzantine historians is that, while the Battle of Myriokephalon was a serious humiliation for the emperor, it was certainly not a catastrophe. Nor was it in any way equivalent to the Battle of Manzikert over a century earlier. In fact, much of the emperor's army emerged from the battle without serious damage. The units involved in the battle are well documented campaigning in Asia Minor the next year. The imperial frontier remained unmoved for the remainder of Manuel's reign, a clear indication that the Turks were unable to gain any advantage from their victory. In the following year (1177) the Byzantines inflicted a major defeat on a large Turkish force in the Meander valley. Thus, despite its dramatic reputation, it is clear that the battle had done nothing to alter the dominant strategic position of the empire in Asia Minor.

By contrast, Manuel's programme of fortification in Byzantine Asia, for which he was praised by Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates, is largely regarded as an important success. Manuel demanded tribute from the Turkmen of the Anatolian interior for the winter pasture in Imperial territory; he also improved the defenses of many cities and towns, and established new garrisons and fortresses across the region. As a result of the cumulative efforts of all three Komnenian emperors, Manuel's domination of Asia Minor was more effective than that of any emperor since before Manzikert. As historian Paul Magdalino makes clear, "by the end of Manuel's reign, the Byzantines controlled all the rich agricultural lowlands of the peninsula, leaving only the less hospitable mountain and plateau areas to the Turks."

In the religious sphere, disputes between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church occasionally harmed efforts at cooperation with the Latins; however, Manuel was almost certainly the Byzantine emperor who came closest to healing the breach between the two churches. Pope Innocent III clearly had a positive view of Manuel when he told Alexios III that he should imitate "your outstanding predecessor of famous memory the emperor Manuel... in devotion to the Apostolic See, both in words and in works".

Manuel was very successful in expanding his influence, particularly over the Crusader states. As an example, Manuel participated in the building and decorating of many of the basilicas and Greek monasteries in the Holy Land, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where due his efforts the Byzantine clergy were allowed to perform the Greek liturgy each day. All this reinforced his position as overlord of the Crusader states, with his hegemony over Antioch and Jerusalem secured by agreement with Raynald, Prince of Antioch, and Amalric, King of Jerusalem respectively. This success in gaining influence and allies among the western states and the Pope is regarded one of the most impressive achievements of Manuel Komnenos's reign.

Military reform

At the beginning of the Komnenian period in 1081, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced to the smallest territorial extent in its history. Surrounded by enemies, and financially ruined by a long period of civil war, the empire's prospects had looked grim. Yet, through a combination of determination, military reform, and years of campaigning, Alexios I Komnenos, John II Komnenos and Manuel I Komnenos managed to restore the power of the Byzantine Empire. An important factor in the success of the Komnenoi was their establishment of a reconstructed Byzantine army. The new military system which they created is known as the Komnenian army. From c.1081 to c.1180, the Komnenian army played an important role in providing the empire with a period of security that enabled Byzantine civilization to flourish.

Twelfth century 'Renaissance'

'The Lamentation of Christ' (1164), a fresco from the church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerezi near Skopje. It is considered a superb example of 12th century Komnenian art.
'The Lamentation of Christ' (1164), a fresco from the church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerezi near Skopje. It is considered a superb example of 12th century Komnenian art.

It has recently been argued that a '12th century renaissance' occurred in Byzantium. Although the term does not enjoy widespread usage, it is beyond doubt that 12th century Byzantium witnessed major cultural developments, which were largely underpinned by rapid economic expansion.

The 12th century was a time of significant growth in the Byzantine economy, with rising population levels and extensive tracts of new agricultural land being brought into production. Archaeological evidence from both Europe and Asia Minor shows a considerable increase in the size of urban settlements, together with a ‘notable upsurge’ in new towns. In Athens the medieval town experienced a period of rapid and sustained growth, starting in the eleventh century and continuing until the end of the twelfth century. Thessaloniki, the second city of the Empire, hosted a famous summer fair which attracted traders from across the Balkans and even further afield to its bustling market stalls. In Corinth, silk production fuelled a thriving economy. In Asia Minor, some areas had become depopulated due to Turkish raiding in the late eleventh century. Yet as the Komnenian emperors built up extensive fortifications in rural areas during the twelfth century, repopulation of the countryside took place. The rise of the Italian city-states may have been a factor in these developments; active traders at this time in the ports of the east, their activities may have stimulated economic growth.

Overall, given that both population and prosperity increased substantially in this period, economic recovery in Byzantium appears to have been strengthening the economic basis of the state. This helps to explain how the Komnenian emperors, Manuel Komnenos in particular, were able to project their power and influence so widely at this time.

The new wealth being generated during this period had a positive impact on Byzantine cultural life. In artistic terms, the twelfth century was a very productive period in Byzantine history. There was a revival in the mosaic art, and regional schools of Architecture began producing many distinctive styles that drew on a range of cultural influences.

According to N.H.Baynes in Byzantium, An Introduction to East Roman Civilization,

Byzantine Empire
Such was the influence of Byzantine art in the twelfth century, that Russia, Venice,

southern Italy and Sicily all virtually became provincial centres dedicated to its production.

Byzantine Empire

Decline and disintegration

Death of Manuel Komnenos

The 12th century was marked by a series of wars against the Hungarians and the Serbs. Emperor Manuel I Komnenos campaigned successfully in this region, forcing the rebellious Serbs to vassalage (1150-1152) and leading his troops into Hungary. In 1168, a decisive victory near Zemun enabled him to conclude a peace by which Dalmatia and other frontier territories were ceded to him. Manuel's success enabled him to choose the next king of Hungary, and he duly appointed Béla III in 1172. However, from the moment of Manuel's death on 24 September 1180, the Byzantine Empire began a steep decline that would never be reversed.

Collapse under the Angeloi

The Komnenos dynasty was replaced in 1185 by that of the Angeloi. It is the universal verdict of history that the inaction and ineptitude of the Angeloi quickly lead to a collapse in Byzantine power on all fronts. Surrounded by a crowd of slaves, mistresses and flatterers, they permitted the empire to be administered by unworthy favourites, while they squandered the money wrung from the provinces on costly buildings and expensive gifts to the churches of the metropolis. They scatterred money so lavishly as to empty the treasury, and allowed such license to the officers of the army as to leave the Empire practically defenceless. Together, they consummated the financial ruin of the state.

The empire's enemies lost no time in taking advantage of this new situation. In the east the Turks invaded the empire, gradually eroding Byzantine control in Asia Minor. Meanwhile in the west, the Serbs and Hungarians broke away from the empire for good, and in Bulgaria the oppressiveness of Angeloi taxation resulted in the Vlach-Bulgarian Rebellion, organised in 1185 in Bulgaria by the brothers Asen and Peter. The rebellion led to the establishment of the Second Bulgarian Empire on territory which had been vital to the empire's security in the Balkans. Kaloyan of Bulgaria annexed several important cities, while the Angeloi squandered the public treasure on palaces and gardens and attempted to deal with the crisis through diplomatic means. These events significantly contributed to the decline of the Byzantine empire. Control of the Balkans was vital to imperial security at this time. The empire's losses to Bulgaria and Serbia were a major disaster, significantly reducing the amount of territory, manpower and revenue available to the state. They also meant that the easily-defensible Danube frontier was replaced by a long and vulnerable land frontier through the rich provinces of South Greece, Macedonia and Thrace with the two revived aggressive Slav states to the north. Byzantine authority was severely weakened, and the growing power vacuum at the centre of the empire encouraged fragmentation, as the provinces began to look to local strongmen rather than the government in Constantinople for protection. This further reduced the resources available to the empire and its military system, as large regions passed outside central control. By 1204, the days of Byzantine supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean were gone for good.

The Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade was the single most catastrophic event in the history of the Byzantine empire. Considered by many to be the low point of the Crusading era, the outcome of the Fourth Crusade was also a supreme irony. The Crusades had originated in a call for aid by the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who had envisaged the use of western soldiers in the defense of the empire. Yet, in 1204, the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked the Byzantine capital at Constantinople and dismantled the Byzantine empire.

The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, by Eugène Delacroix, 1840
The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople, by Eugène Delacroix, 1840

Although the stated intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt, the leaders of the Crusade were placed in an extremely difficult position when they found that considerably fewer men had responded to the call for a crusade than had been expected. As a result, they could not afford to pay for the huge Venetian fleet which they had hired to take them to Egypt. The Venetians would not let the crusaders leave without paying the full amount agreed to, originally 85,000 silver marks. The crusaders could only pay some 51,000. After a period of indecision and argument between the Crusade leaders and the increasingly impatient Venetians, the Venetian Doge Enrico Dandolo made a controversial new proposal - the crusaders could pay their debts by attacking the port of Zara in Dalmatia (essentially an independent community which recognized King Emeric of Hungary as a protector, and which was previously ruled by Venice).

The citizens of Zara made reference to the fact that they were fellow Catholics by hanging banners marked with crosses from their windows and the walls of the city, but nevertheless the city fell after a brief siege. Both the Venetians and the crusaders were immediately excommunicated for this by Pope Innocent III.

In 1202, the Byzantine prince Alexius Angelus, the son of the recently deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelus, offered to reunite the Byzantine church with Rome, pay the crusaders an enormous sum, and join the crusade to Egypt with a large army if the crusaders would sail to Constantinople and topple the reigning emperor. The crusaders accepted; their fleet arrived at Constantinople in late June 1203.

The Crusaders' initial motive was to restore Isaac II to the Byzantine throne so that they could receive the support that they were promised. The citizens of Constantinople turned against emperor Alexius III, who then fled. Prince Alexius was elevated to the throne as Alexius IV along with his blind father Isaac.

Alexius IV realised that his promises were hard to keep, as the empire was short on funds. In fear of his life, the co-emperor asked from the crusaders to renew their contract for another six months (until April 1204). Opposition to Alexius IV grew, and one of his courtiers, Alexius Ducas (nicknamed 'Murtzuphlos' because of his thick eyebrows), soon overthrew him and had him strangled to death. Alexius Ducas took the throne himself as Alexius V; Isaac died soon afterwards, probably naturally.

Map to show the partition of the empire following the Fourth Crusade, c.1204.
Map to show the partition of the empire following the Fourth Crusade, c.1204.

The Catholic clergy meanwhile accused the Byzantines of being traitors and murderers since they had killed their rightful lord, Alexius IV. The churchmen used inflammatory language and claimed that "the Greeks were worse than the Jews", and they invoked the authority of God and the pope to take action. Although Innocent III had warned them not to attack, the papal letter was suppressed by the clergy, and the crusaders prepared to assault the Byzantine capital.

Eventually, the crusaders took the city on the 13th of April. The crusaders inflicted a horrible and savage sacking on Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were stolen or destroyed. Among the loot were four bronze horses from the Hippodrome. These were taken to Venice, where they remain to this day. Despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, the Crusaders systematically violated the city's holy sanctuaries, destroying, defiling or stealing all they could lay hands on; according to Byzantine historian Nicetas Choniates, a prostitute was even set up on the Patriarchal throne. When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his crusaders, he was appalled, saying "You vowed to liberate the Holy Land but you rashly turned away from the purity of your vow when you took up arms not against Saracens but Christians… The Greek Church has seen in the Latins nothing other than an example of affliction and the works of Hell, so that now it rightly detests them more than dogs".

According to a prearranged treaty, the Byzantine empire was dissolved and its territories divided between Venice and the Latin Empire of Constantinople. The Greek Orthodox clergy were displaced by Latin Catholic clergy, while the nobility were displaced by Latin feudal barons. Byzantine exiles fled Constantinople, taking refuge in Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epirus.

The fall of the Byzantine Empire

The flag of the Empire in the late 14th century.
The flag of the Empire in the late 14th century.

After the sack of Constantinople in 1204, three Byzantine successor states were established. These states included the Empire of Nicaea, the Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus.

The Byzantine Empire in 1265 (William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911).
The Byzantine Empire in 1265 (William R. Shepherd, Historical Atlas, 1911).

The first state, controlled by the Palaiologan dynasty, managed to reclaim Constantinople in 1261 and defeated Epirus. This led to a short lived revival of the Eastern Roman Empire under Michael VIII, but the war-ravaged empire was ill-equipped to deal with the encircling enemies that now surrounded it. Much of Constantinople lay in ruins; the army was desperately short of funds; Italian merchants and their ships dominated the empire's sea-lanes; the economy was in decline; the empire's ancient frontiers had been overrun; the provinces were in disarray. Michael was a remarkably successful emperor, and during his reign the empire went some way towards recovery. But his magnificent achievement did not outlast his own lifetime. Ultimately, the resources available were simply not sufficient for the task of restoring the Byzantine empire. Major structural reforms, of the kind conducted by the emperor Heraclius in the 7th century, may yet have saved the empire. However, the Palaiologan dynasty never produced a reforming emperor, and the empire's decline continued.

Civil war racked the empire during the 14th century; the Asian provinces were lost to the Turks, while the Serbians and Bulgarians conquered the empire's remaining territory in Europe. For a while, the empire survived simply because the Muslims were too divided to attack. However, the unifying influence of Osman I (1258–1326) allowed the newly founded Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) to deprive the Byzantines of all but a handful of port cities.

The Emperors appealed to the west for help, but the Pope would only consider sending aid in return for a reunion of the Eastern Orthodox Church with the See of Rome. Church unity was considered, and occasionally accomplished by imperial decree, but the Orthodox citizenry and clergy refused accept Roman Catholicism and shunned the Latin Rite. Some western mercenaries arrived to bolster the Christian defence of Constantinople, but most Western rulers, distracted by their own affairs, did nothing as the Ottomans picked apart the remaining Byzantine territories.

The Turks had previously considered Constantinople not worth the considerable effort of conquest, but with the advent of cannon, the walls (which had been impenetrable to assault for over 1,000 years) no longer offered adequate protection against the Ottomans.

The Byzantine Empire by the year 1400
The Byzantine Empire by the year 1400

Constantinople by this stage 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. In March 1453, an Ottoman army of 85,000 men led by Sultan Mehmet II laid siege to the city. Despite a desperate last-ditch defense of the city by the massively outnumbered Christian forces (7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreign mercenaries), Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans after a two-month siege by on Tuesday 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.


Mehmed II went on to conquer the Greek statelets of Mistra in 1460 and Trebizond in 1461. By the end of the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire had established its firm rule over Asia Minor and parts of the Balkan peninsula. Mehmed and his successors continued to consider themselves proper heirs to the Byzantine Empire until the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, the Danubian Principalities harbored Orthodox refugees, including some Byzantine nobles (see Byzantium after Byzantium for details).

Technically, the Byzantine Empire lived on in the city of Monemvasia in the Morea, until 1471, when the titular Despot of the Morea, Demetrius Palaeologus, now living in Rome under the protection of the Pope, sold it to the latter for cash. Meanwhile, his nephew, and the nephew of the last Emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, Andreas Palaeologus had inherited the defunct title of Byzantine Emperor and used it since 1465 until his death in 1503.

At his death, the role of the emperor as a patron of Eastern Orthodoxy was claimed by Ivan III, Grand Dukes of Muscovy. He had married Andreas's sister, Sophia Paleologue, whose grandson, Ivan IV, would become the first Tsar of Russia (tsar, also spelled czar, is a term traditionally applied by Slavs to the Byzantine Emperors). Their successors supported the idea that Moscow was the proper heir to Rome and Constantinople. The idea of the Russian Empire as the new, Third Rome was kept alive until its demise in 1917, with the Russian Revolution.

Empress Catherine the Great (1762-1796), launched a series of campaigns against the Ottomans to capture Constantinople and recreate the Byzantine Empire under Russian control. She commissioned the Sophia Cathedral in her imperial residence, named her grandson after the first Byzantine Emperor and managed to wrest the Crimea from the Ottomans. Although the Russian armies would approach Constaninople in 1829 and 1878, the Ottoman Empire was rescued by the intervention of the Great Powers during the Crimean War and Congress of Berlin.

Legacy and importance

The city of Constantinople in 1453.
The city of Constantinople in 1453.

Byzantium was arguably the only stable state in Europe during the Middle Ages. Its expert military and diplomatic power ensured inadvertently that Western Europe remained safe from many of the more devastating invasions from eastern peoples, at a time when the Western Christian kingdoms might have had difficulty containing it (this role was mirrored in the north by the Russian states of Kiev, Vladimir-Suzdal and Novgorod). Constantly under attack during its entire existence, the Byzantine Empire shielded Western Europe from Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and for a time, the Ottomans.

The 20th century has seen an increased interest by historians to understand the empire, and its impact on European civilization is only recently being recognised.


The Byzantine economy was the most advanced in Europe for many centuries. The Byzantine Solidus was the internationally preferred currency for 700 years, only gradually being superseded by Italian currencies (particularly that of Venice) after 1204. The wealth of the empire was unmatched by any state in Europe, and its capital was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. This economic wealth was helped enormously by the fact that Byzantium was the most important western terminal of the Silk Road. It was also the single most important commercial centre of Europe for much of the Medieval era, which status it held until Venice began to overtake Constantinople during the 13th and 14th centuries.

One of the economic foundations of the empire was trade. Constantinople was located on important east-west and north-south trade routes. Trebizond was an important port in the eastern trade. The exact routes varied over the years with wars and the political situation. Imports and exports were uniformly taxed at ten percent.

Raw silk was bought from China and India and made up into fine brocades and cloth-of-gold that commanded high prices through the world. Silk processing was an imperial monopoly, only processed in imperial factories, and sold to authorized buyers. Later, silk worms were smuggled into the Empire and the overland silk trade became less important. Other exports included gold jewelry, enameled work, and fine carvings in ivory and semi-precious stone. In other parts of the empire, wine was made and exported to the north. Furs, slaves, timber, metals, and amber were imported from the north, and dried fish from the south.

Commercial life in the Byzantine empire was extensively and minutely regulated by the state. Interest rates, profits, and prices were set by law, and enforced through a system of guilds. There was always full employment: It was very difficult to fire an employee, and any able-bodied man who was "idle" was required to take a public-works job.

The sack of Constantinople by Latin crusaders in 1204 was an economic catastrophe. As one Crusader, Geoffrey of Villehardouin, wrote of the sack of the Byzantine Capital in 1204,

"... Never, since the world was created, had so much booty been won in any city."

By the early thirteenth century, the Crusaders had altered the trade routes to the advantage of the Italian city-states. Although the Palaiologoi took back Constantinople in 1261, the empire's economy never entirely recovered. Territorial gains by the Turks in Asia Minor forced Constantinople to look elsewhere for its food supply. For political and military reasons the weakened empire was forced to grant concessions to Italian traders, reducing tax revenues. Furthermore, the Italians had acquired silk worms, reducing the value of the imperial monopoly. For the last two centuries of its existence, the ever declining territories and revenues of the Byzantine Empire were never enough to pay for the cost of its defence. This situation greatly contributed to the eventual collapse of the empire.

Science and law

Byzantium played an important role in the transmission of classical knowledge to the Islamic world and to Renaissance Italy. Its rich historiographical tradition preserved ancient knowledge upon which splendid art, architecture, literature and technological achievements were built. It is not an altogether unfounded assumption that the Renaissance could not have flourished were it not for the groundwork laid in Byzantium, and the flock of Greek scholars to the West after the fall of the Empire.

The Emperor Justinian I's formation of a new code of law, the Corpus Juris Civilis, and the revisions it constantly underwent (most notably in the Macedonian Dynasty), had a clear effect on the evolution of jurisprudence. The Codex itself compiled all previous statutes of Roman emperors, paved the way for a more developed system of appeals courts and a system of maritime law which strongly influenced their modern equivalents. In this Byzantium arguably contributed more towards the evolution of jurisprudence and modern legal systems than its direct predecessor, Roman law.


Modern day church with the double-headed flag of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Modern day church with the double-headed flag of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Byzantine Empire had a major influence upon Orthodox Christianity. This was embodied in the Byzantine version of Christianity, which spread Orthodoxy and eventually led to the creation of the " Byzantine commonwealth" (a term coined by 20th century historians) throughout Eastern Europe. Early Byzantine missionary work spread Orthodox Christianity to various Slavic peoples, where it still is a predominant religion. Such modern-day countries are Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine; of course, it has also remained the official religion of the Greeks via the uninterrupted continuity of the Greek Orthodox Church. Less well known is the influence of the Byzantine religious sensibility on the millions of Christians in Ethiopia, the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and the Christians of Armenia, though they all belong to the Oriental Orthodox (as opposed to the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox) faith. In 1054, there was a break between the Eastern and Western churches of the Byzantine Empire.

Robert Byron, one of the first 20th century Philhellenes, argued that the greatness of Byzantium lay in what he described as "the Triple Fusion": that of a Roman body, a Greek mind and an oriental, mystical soul.

Art, architecture, and literature

Byzantine Art and Byzantine Architecture were largely based around the Christian story and its heralds, and the importance of icons in Orthodox society. In terms of architecture, Byzantines emphasized the Dome, the arch and the Grecian cross lay out. It is evidenced today in countless examples of old Byzantine Churches with their traditional mosaics depicting Saints and figures from the Bible. Its impact was such that it spawned a Neo-Byzantine architectural revival in later years. Byzantine Art was also important in this respect, its impact on Orthodoxy can be witnessed across southeast Europe, Russia, the Holy Land and parts of the Middle East, but also in those areas of Turkey where it was allowed to survive.

The finest Byzantine literary works were Hymns and devotionals. The other area where the Byzantines excelled was in practical writing. While rarely works of genius, a series of competent, diligent writers, both male and female, produced many works of practical value in the fields of public administration, military affairs, and the practical sciences. The early theological work of the Byzantines was important in the development of western thought. Historiography influenced later Russian chroniclers.

This article is part of the series on:

History of Greece

Prehistory of Greece
Cycladic Civilization
Minoan Civilization
Mycenaean Civilization
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece
Hellenistic Age
Roman Greece
Medieval Greece
Byzantine Empire
Ottoman Greece
Modern Greece
Greek War of Independence
Kingdom of Greece
Axis Occupation of Greece
Greek Civil War
Military Junta
The Hellenic Republic

Most of the writing was in classical Greek. Vernacular literature developed much more slowly than in the west. There was little fiction, the best-known work being the epic poem Digenis Acritas, written in something approaching the vernacular. Much of the writing of the day was history, theology, biography, and hagiography. Many letters have survived, some work-a-day correspondence, a few minor masterpieces, as well as a few large encyclopedic works, such as the huge Suda. Perhaps the Byzantine empire's greatest contribution to literature was their careful preservation of the best works of the ancient world, as well as compilations of works on certain subjects, with certain revisions, most specifically in the fields of medicine and history.

Civil service and the government

The Byzantine State differed from other States of its day in that it emphasized the importance of a rigid, semi-professional Civil Service rather than direct rule, and the appointment of the Monarch. The Civil Administration can largely be divided into three groups, the Palatine Administration, the Provincial Government and the Central Civil Service. Within this context, the system can be divided into two further sub-groupings, Judicial Officers and Financial Officers who were spread across the 13 permanent Departments of State (in the Central Civil Service).

In this, it can be said it anticipates the systems of many modern nation states, and, despite the occasionally derogatory use of the word "Byzantine", it had a distinct ability for reinventing itself in accordance with the Empire's situation. In this it was far more stable than other European systems of government at the time, and contributed clearly towards the evolution of Political science and the system of government.


Whereas classical writers are fond of making a sharp distinction between peace and war, for the Byzantines diplomacy was a form of war by other means. Anticipating Machiavelli, Byzantine historian John Kinnamos writes, "Since many and various matters lead toward one end, victory, it is a matter of indifference which one uses to reach it." With a regular army that never exceeded 140,000, the empire's security depended on activist diplomacy. Byzantium's "Bureau of Barbarians" was the first foreign intelligence agency, gathering information on the empire’s rivals from every imaginable source.

The Byzantines were skilled at using diplomacy as a weapon of war. If the Bulgars threatened, subsidies could be given to the Russians. A Russian threat could be countered by subsidies to the Patzinaks. If the Patzinaks proved troublesome, the Cumans or Uzes could be contacted. There was always someone to the enemy’s rear in a position to appreciate the emperor’s largesse. Another innovative principle of Byzantine diplomacy was effective interference in the internal affairs of other states. In 1282, Michael VIII sponsored a revolt in Sicily against Charles of Anjou called the Sicilian Vespers. Emperor Heraclius once intercepted a message from Persian rival Khosrau II which ordered the execution of a general. Heraclius added 400 names to the message and diverted the messenger, provoking a rebellion by those on the list. The emperor maintained a stable of pretenders to almost every foreign throne. These could be given funds and released to wreak havoc if their homeland threatened attack.

Why did the empire fall?

The decline and fall of the Byzantine empire was a process lasting many centuries. There is no consensus on exactly when this process began; several dates have been suggested by historians:

  • 1025 - Death of the soldier-emperor Basil II
  • 1071 - The Battle of Manzikert
  • 1180 - Death of Manuel I Komnenos
  • 1185 - Demise of the Komnenos dynasty
  • 1204 - Fourth Crusade conquers Constantinople

Taking into account the restoration of imperial power by the Komnenoi, recent books by Paul Magdalino and J. Birkenmeier have placed the permanent drop in imperial power after the death of the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1180), and especially after the death of the last Komnenian emperor, Andronikos I Komnenos (1185). Although this view is not universally held, historians generally agree that after the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the empire was only a shadow of its former self. The death of Michael VIII in 1282 marks the last high point of the Byzantine empire. From then on, the empire entered its final decline.

Map of the changes in borders of the Byzantine Empire
Map of the changes in borders of the Byzantine Empire

One possible explanation for the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire is the permanent settlement of Anatolia by the Seljuks, a Turkic people. Their rise to power gradually deprived the empire of much of its territory and resources, thus contributing greatly to the eventual collapse of the empire. Yet the fall of the empire cannot be ascribed to any one single cause. External factors such as the arrival of new enemies must also be weighed against internal changes within the empire itself.

Therefore, another major factor in the decline of the Byzantine empire may have been the disintegration of its traditional military system, the 'theme' system, which had supplied large numbers of troops for the empire in earlier centuries. The system had also provided the empire with a highly effective form of defense in depth. Yet by the later 11th century, this system had largely fallen into disuse. If we view the theme system as one of the main institutional strengths of the Byzantine state, then its demise helps to explain the collapse of the empire. Without strong underlying institutions that could endure beyond the reign of each emperor, the state was extremely vulnerable in times of crisis. Byzantium had come to rely too much on individual emperors.

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