In this article, I would like to share information about the history of the Byzantine Empire, which has survived for more than 1000 years. In this blog post you can read facts about Byzantium and see the change of the empire over time on the map.
History of the Byzantine Empire
The history of the Byzantine Empire began with the division of Rome in 395. Although Arcadius was the first ruler of Eastern Rome, Byzantium’s founding father is considered to be Constantine the Great. Now I want to share information about Byzantine history as a question and answer.
Why Constantine Chose Byzantium As The New Capital?
The city of Rome, lost its importance by the beginning of 4th Century due to Barbarian attacks. Emperor Constantine decided to move the capital of Roman Empire to the East. For that purpose he chose a small Greek city called Byzantium. Following this move, the city was named as Constantinople and became the prominent city of Medieval Ages.
Why Was Constantinople Created To Be New Capital of Roman Empire?
Emperor Constantine‘s decision was based on economic and political reasons. Istanbul‘s geographical position had made it almost impossible for Barbarians to attack. It was very near to trade routes and the rich Eastern Provinces. Therefore it was providing considerable benefits.
Division of the Roman Empire as East and West 395 AD
The successor of Constantine, Emperor Theodosius, divided the Roman Empire in two halves. His son Arcadius became the ruler of Eastern Roman Empire. While his brother Honorius handled the Western half of the Rome.
This is considered as the beginning of longest-living empire in the World. Byzantine Empire which was originally known as Eastern Roman Empire or simply Byzantium.
Byzantine Empire Map
The first map I want to share about the Byzantine Empire is the division map of Rome into east and west. Because this was the starting point of the Eastern Roman Empire, that is, the Byzantine Empire.
Byzantine Empire Facts
In November 324 AD, Emperor Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Being exhausted by the decades of civil war, Constantine had managed to reunite the empire by force.
A few weeks after ascending to the throne, Contantine decided to journey to the East. He was moving away the old rivalries, political infightins in Rome, in favour of a new Capital: New Rome. Eventually named as Constantine’s city: Constantinople.
Why Constantine Converted To Christianity?
Rising of Christianity was irreversible in the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Christian people were very well organized. They were becoming a state within the state day after day. Recognizing the presence of this powerful organization was wise decision. Constantine built his new city upon the foundations of new religion. The first generation Hagia Sophia (Megale Ekklesia) was built by him in the heart of Constantinople.
What Was The Purpose Of The Council of Nicaea
Constantine was the greatest reformist to the throne after the Diocletian. He changed the capital and laid the foundations for the new religion, Christianity. First he felt obliged to form the hierarchy of the Church.
In the First Council of Nicaea, the principals of Christianity decided upon. The five major episcopal sees of the Empire assigned to the cities: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch.
Rome and Constantinople were the major cities to lead the Christian community due to their political strength. Over time, this competition has led to great controversy between the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople.
Eventually caused the Great Schism in 1054. The separation of East and West Churches. The consequences were bitter for Constantinople. The hatred showed itself in the form of invasion: Sack of Constantinople (1204).
Rise of The Byzantine Empire in 6th Century
Constantinople had become a glittering city in a short while. The increasing population caused a big problem to come to surface: lack of drinking water since there were no local water resources. The city was literally surrounded by sea from three sides, yet there was no drop of clean water to drink.
Why was the City of Constantinople Important?
The rulers of Eastern Roman Empire, accomplished three major engineering achivements in the World. The Valens Aqueduct, Theodisian Walls and Hagia Sophia Church.
Valens Aqueduct of Constantinople
The first one was to build the longest aqueduct system to bring water to Constantinople. The Valens Aqueduct had been carrying water from springs which was nearly 400 kilometres away. The remains of aqueduct can be still seen in modern day Istanbul.
Theodosian Walls of Constantinople
The Great City Walls of Constantinople were literally invincible. The three layer defensive walls built against the threat of Barbarian invasion. During the 5th Century, fierce warrior Attila of the Huns had been a real trouble for Byzantium.
Hagia Sophia Church of Constantinople
Hagia Sophia was a great architectural feat in human history. Anthemius and Isidore, the most brilliant minds of Byzantine Empire’s Anatolia, created the largest temple that world has ever seen. Built the greatest Domed Basilica in the World in five years.
A Little Note: Why The Hagia Sophia Was Built?
First Hagia Sophia had been built by Emperor Constantine and his sucessor Constantius II. It was destroyed by the people of city in a riot against Arcadius. When Emperor’s wife Eudoxia erected her silver statue in the courtyard of the Church, Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, claimed that it was a sign of Paganism.
Golden Mouthed preacher of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, had been sent to exile by the Emperor. It caused a fierce rebellion in the city. The angry populace torched the first generation Hagia Sophia.
Afterwards the next emperor Theodosius II built the 2nd generation Hagia Sophia Church which will survive until much worse riot which is known as Nika Revolt. This time against Justinian.
The Greatest Extent of Byzantine Empire Under Justinian
Justinian’s life story is very striking. He was born as a peasant in Macedonia. He came to Constantinople with the invitation of his uncle Justin. Uncle Justin was a distinctive soldier and he became the chief of Imperial Guards.
When the Emperor died without an heir, Justin seized the throne. He was not eligible for being an emperor at all. He was not educated and he barely read and write. Emperor Justin adopted Justinian and made sure that he received law and history education. Soon afterwards Justinian became the chief advisor.
Emperor Justinian and his Wife Empress Theodora
The marriage of Justinian with Theodora caused great troubles in the realm. Because Theodora was known as a circus dancer and some even claims she was a prostitute. She was low class lady from the streets.
However she soon proved to be the right person to accompany the greatest ruler of Byzantium. Theodora’s intelligance and courage saved Justinian from certain death.
Hippodrome of Constantinople – Byzantine Chariot Racing
Justinian had a very strong will. He wanted to conquer Constantine‘s Roman Empire. Therefore he made military campaigns in the direction of the West to re-take Rome. Justinian built Walls, Churches and extended his Great Palace of Constantinople.
Why Did The Nika Riots Happen? Constantinople’s Great Revolt
The extreme tax rates hurt the low class. As Justinian tightened his grip on Byzantine people, Constantinople‘s resentment turned into rage. It came to surface during one of the games in Hippodrome.
Rivalry between Blues and Greens – Hippodrome Games in Constantinople
Hippodrome of Constantinople had 100.000 people capacity. A massive race track for chariots. The rivalry between the Blues and Greens had political meanings too. Blues were mainly supported by Aristocracy as opposed to Greens supported by farmers, merchants, working class.
Nika Riots 532 – Constantinople’s Most Violent Revolt
On 13th January 532, Justinian was watching the games from Imperial Lodge. The people’s hatred was so fierce that Blues and Greens were united against him.
Spectators began to insult him first. They attempted to assault to lodge afterwards. Justinian escaped to the Great Palace, intending to flee from Constantinople with a boat.
What Empress Theodora Said To Emperor Justinian?
Theodora said to Justinian: “I prefer to die with my purple clothes rather than escape. Great Emperors are not meant to leave their throne like cowards. You can not just abdicate the throne and live like ordinary people.”
While they were discussing this, the people razed the most important buildings of Constantinople to the ground. Including hospital, luxurious houses and even Churches. Hagia Sophia had been the victim of another uprising once again. Angry crowds torched the Theodosius Hagia Sophia.
30.000 People Were Killed The Hippodrome of Constantinople
Emperor Justinian was convinced to stay and fight. He summoned Belisarius and Narses, most brilliant military minds of Byzantium. They invited the rebels into Hippodrome. Infact it was an obvious trap. People would not think Justinian was that crazy to kill majority of the men in the city. But he did!
While Narses pretended to talk to the leaders of the riot; offering them money, land, ranks that would never be given. Belisarius gathered the troops. He suddenly stormed into the Hippodrome and slaughtered the rebels mercilessly.
Present Day Hagia Sophia Built By Justinian
Justinian quickly recovered. He rebuilt everything that had been demolished during the riot. He wanted to carve his name to the history, by building greatest temple of the World.
Solomon’s Temple was the legendary temple of the Ancient Ages. He commissioned most brilliant engineer and architect of Byzantium for creating something even better. The Hagia Sophia of today.
Hagia Sophia were built in 5 years. 11.000 people engaged in the construction process.
Decline of The Byzantine Empire 7th Century
The Byzantine Empire reached to its peak by the time of Justinian. Literally it was the beginning of the fall as well. Because Justinian spent the resources of the Empire for buildings and conquests. His successors could not afford to protect the overextended boundaries.
Byzantine Empire Map under Justinian
Arab, Slav, Barbarian Attacks And The Rise of Islam
Arabs, Slavs, Barbarians attempted to seize the Constantinople. The city survived against all attacks thanks to its strong walls. However, the Arabs became a serious threat, The Rise of Islam started in 7th Century and it triggered some major changes in Byzantine Empire’s culture and social life.
Byzantine Iconoclasm – Destroying The Mosaics, Icons, Artworks
The Isauran Dynasty ruled the Byzantine Empire in 8th Century. After a century of losing battles and shrinking boundaries, they needed a scapegoat. They eventually found it in the Church: The Mosaics.
Islamic Armies had been advancing, capturing Byzantine lands in the Middle East and Africa. Emperors obsessed with one thought: “We are doing something wrong and this is a punishment. Islam banned the icons. This must be the reason why God favours them.”
Emperors also envied the wealth and power of the Church. They were thinking that the mosaics, icons, frescoes were poisons. They decided to destroy them all. Many priests, monks were killed in monasteries and churches.
The Byzantine Iconoclasm lasted for a Century and unfortunately shadowed the Byzantine Empire Art and Culture. Nowadays we have mosaics left from Post-Iconoclasm. For instance the oldest mosaic of Hagia Sophia from 9th Century.
Macedonian Dynasty Rule – Byzantine Empire Recovers 9th – 10th Centuries
Macedonian Dynasty got the Byzantine Empire back on track. They re-captured some of the lost territories and secured the borders. They restored the Byzantine Art which was harmed by Iconoclasm.
Following the stabilization, trade business thrived. Constantinople became once more the bridge between the Asia and Europe. Economy significantly recovered and the tax income increased.
Basil II, was the most brilliant commander, Byzantine Empire ever produced. He reclaimed the former Byzantine imperial lands Balkans. He strecthed the borders from Danube to Euphrates. He neutralised the Bulgarian Kingdom with brutal force. Therefore he nicknamed Bulgar Slayer.
Last member of Macedonian Dynasty: Empress Zoe
Fight For The Throne – Seljuk Pressure At The Eastern Borders
Basil II was a successful ruler. However he did not prepare a good successor to handle the things after him. It led to fights for the throne and instabilization. The accomplishments of Macedonian dynasty could not be protected.
Great Seljuk Empire
In the meantime a dreadful enemy, Seljuk Turks appeared in Eastern borders. They settled to Persia and created a strong Empire. Controlled the holy lands and blessed by the Abbasid Caliphate as the protector of Islam. Seljuk Empire became major rival of Byzantines in a very short time.
Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes
After years of shifting of power between Byzantine nobles, Romanos IV Diogenes seized the throne. He was originally a soldier. He launched series of reforms to get the Empire back on track. He was a harsh person, therefore he gained the hatred of nobelty.
Battle of Manzikert: Byzantines ve Seljuk Empire 1071
This battle became the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire. Romanos IV lost the battle against Seljuk Sultan: Alp Arslan. Furthermore he was taken prisoner too. The major reason of this military disaster was a treason. The officers from rival families abandoned their posts, leaving the emperor helpless in front of a very dangerous enemy.
Byzantine Empire History and Facts
Loss of the Mainland of Byzantine Empire: Anatolia (Asia Minor)
Seljuks invaded the Anatolia very quickly. They reached to the Mediterranean coasts of Anatolia in a short while. Seljuk had seized Jerusalem, Mekka, Medina before. Now they had the Holy Lands of Anatolia (Antioch, Cappadocia).
Launch of First Crusades By the Popes
Byzantine Empire was a buffer between Islamic forces and the Europe. Popes launched the first Crusades to reclaim the Holy Lands. It provided a great advantage for Byzantines at the beginning.
Seljuk Empire was battered by fierce Crusader attacks. Alexius I Comnenus confiscated Eastern Anatolia and reclaimed the lands from Seljuks.
IV Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople 1204
However the repeating Crusades turned out to be a disaster for Byzantines. Latin armies led by the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, captured the Constantinople by force and razed the city. The most civilized city of Medieval Ages, became a cow town. The city was ruthlessly sacked by Crusaders.
Fall Of Byzantine Empire 1261 – 1453
Byzantine princes managed to reclaim Constantinople after 57 years of occupation. Once mighty Empire never truly recovered after the invasion. Great Palace of Byzantine Emperors was nothing more than ruins. The sacred relics the generates spiritual power were stolen. Gold and Silver items were taken to Venice. Hippodrome was destroyed.
The Byzantine Emperors moved to Palace of Blachernae located neary by Golden Horn. Empire lost connection with majority of the provinces. Therefore the state treasury went bankrupt. The new threat: Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was dominating Anatolia.
Fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Empire 1453
Following the collapse of Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, many Turkish princedoms occured in Anatolia. One of them was the Ottomans. Founded by a chieftain named Osman Ghazi (Othman) this little city-state grew into a mighty empire. Surrounded the Constantinople from all sides. Major cities like Prussa, Nicaea and Adrianople fell to Ottomans. Nothing left but the weary Constantinople.
Byzantine Empire Map 1453
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II
The Ottoman Sultan: Mehmed II dealt a death blow to the last hope of Byzantines. Siege of Constantinople ended by the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks.
Ottoman Empire was a new rising power. They immediately proclaimed the Constantinople as their new capital. Named it as Konstantiniyye at first.
City was adorned with new palaces and buildings. Hagia Sophia restored and converted to a mosque. (without harming Byzantine mosaics) Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople was maintained by Sultan Mehmed. Tough they had to move from Hagia Sophia to St. George’s Cathedral in Fener (Phanar) neighborhood
The Turkish version of Constantinople: Konstantiniyye used for long years. Later changed into Istanbul. Constantinople was once again the Capital of a mighty Empire. As it was destined to be…
Byzantine Empire History and Facts by Serhat Engul