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.
Due to its more than 1000 years of history, the Byzantine Empire is one of the longest-lasting empires in the world. Although the Eastern Roman Empire used to be the heir of the Ancient Roman Empire, it went through a great evolution and was influenced by the Hellenic culture heavily. That is why it is known as the Byzantine Empire in history.
Byzantine history contains truly breathtaking details. The story that begins with Emperor Constantine is like an exciting movie that lasted for a millennium. There are wars, theological conflicts, rise and fall in the story.
History of the Byzantine Empire
Before we delve into the history of the Byzantine Empire, let’s go back a little and talk about the last years of the Roman Empire shortly. Therefore, we can have a more clear picture of how the Eastern Roman Empire, aka the Byzantine Empire, was founded.
1. Foundation of Constantinople
The Roman Empire was wary of fighting the barbarians (Germanic Tribes and Goths) in the west and the Persians in the east. These problems caused Rome to lose its significance as emperors wanted to be closer to the critical locations both in east and west. Therefore, they started looking for another capital.
The first emperor who wanted to move the center of the empire to the east was Diocletian. He resided in Nicomedia (Izmit) during his early years as an emperor. However, it was Constantine the Great who changed the capital of the empire permanently.
Constantine built a new city by the Bosphorus in 330 and named it Constantinople. The new capital was founded on Byzantium, a Greek colony. The Emperor saw the advantageous position of the new capital during the Battle of Chrysopolis, the last battle of Tetrarchy.
The Foundation of Constantinople was not an arbitrary decision, it was based on political and financial reasons. The fact that Istanbul is a peninsula made it almost impossible for the barbarians to attack it. Thus, it would be a capital city sheltered from barbarian attacks.
Constantinople was also located at the intersection of ancient trade routes. It was one of the central ports on traditional silk and spice routes. For this reason, it had a bright future in the Eastern Mediterranean trade.
2. The Division of the Roman Empire
Upon Emperor Theodosius’ death in 395, the empire was divided into two between his two sons. Honorius became the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, while Arcadius took control of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Arcadius was the first emperor of Eastern Rome, which we call the Byzantine Empire in modern history. However, due to the foundation of Constantinople, this title is often attributed to Emperor Constantine.
The division of the Roman Empire paved the way for the collapse of Western Rome in the long run. When the Western Rome collapsed in 476, the Eastern Rome was prospering both financially and politically. It was mainly because the East wasn’t affected by the barbarian invasions as badly as the west and it was still maintaining the political and cultural heritage it received from Ancient Greek civilization.
Due to the heavy taxing of the lands cultivated in the Eastern Roman Empire, farmers took refuge in powerful landowners. Eventually, this led to some sort of feudalism in the region.
3. Facts about the Byzantine Empire
Now let’s talk about some facts about the Byzantine Empire. The name “Byzantine” is a term coined by modern historians. While the Byzantine people saw themselves as Romans, the rulers were known as Roman Emperors. They considered Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Constantine as their ancestors.
After the Ottomans captured Constantinople (1453), citizens of Byzantine origin were called “Rum”. This means Roman in Turkish. In fact, Mehmed II, the first Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul, used the title of Roman Emperor in some edicts.
All this was natural and had legal grounds, as Constantinople was the only heir to Ancient Rome after Western Rome fell. Until Charlemagne was proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, the Byzantine emperors claimed Rome’s legacy in the West.
We see that “Byzantine” term has been used in western sources after the 16th century. Byzantium was the name of Istanbul when it was founded as an ancient Greek city in the 7th century BC. Byzantine term has been used to separate ancient Rome from medieval Rome, which became Hellenized.
4. Byzantine Monuments in Istanbul
When Constantinople was founded in 330, a hippodrome like Circus Maximus in Rome was built. The only place where the people and the emperor would come together was the Hippodrome to watch the chariot races. There were two teams, the Blues and the Greens, competing to win various competitions.
The Blues symbolized the rich people in Istanbul and they would reside in areas where aristocrats and senators lived. The Greens, on the other hand, were usually made up of merchants, seamen and craftsmen. Therefore, the Greens would represent the democratic part of the public.
In that way, Hippodrome was also the only place and method for the masses to be heard by the rulers. The Church had been in collaboration with the rulers since the 4th century and it turned into its natural supporter and ally to maintain the status quo.
The Roman capital Constantinople was decorated with magnificent monuments. For instance, the Obelisk of Theodosius at the center of the Hippodrome was brought to Constantinople from Ancient Egypt. This obelisk is the oldest monument in Istanbul today.
The Great Palace where emperors resided, the Forum of Constantine, the biggest square of the city and the biggest church of the city, the Church of the Holy Apostles were the most important monuments of Constantinople in the Roman era.
It is still possible to see some of these Byzantine monuments in Istanbul. Among them are churches, palace ruins, columns and walls.
5. Barbarian Attacks and Religious Divisions
The Eastern Roman Empire had to deal with barbarian attacks from the 5th century onwards. Goths, Vandals and Huns were the biggest enemies of the Roman Empire in this century.
In 440’s Hun Khan Atilla looted the whole Balkan states and reached as far as Thrace and it was why Byzantium was not quick enough to help the Western Roman Empire that was on the brink of collapse. In the end, the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 because of the invasion of the Goths.
This century also witnessed the emergence of a sect named Monophysitism. This sect is more about theology and it interpreted the existence of Jesus Christ differently. Byzantine emperors shed a lot of blood to prevent this sect from spreading. However, they failed, and this religious separation caused great problems in Byzantium in the long run.
Religious divisions could even be observed in chariot races. Supported by the aristocrats, the Blues represented Orthodox Christianity, while the Greens consisted of the Monophysite minority.
6. Byzantine Empire Map under Justinian
Justinian I was unquestionably the most famous emperor in the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Justinian I wanted to have the same glorious days as the Roman Empire in the Ancient Age. Therefore, he launched vast military campaigns. These campaigns were successful thanks to Belisarius, Narses and Mundus, the skilled generals of Justinian I. You can clearly see the fruits of these military achievements on the Byzantine Empire Map under Justinian rule above.
The Byzantine Empire had inherited the cultural heritage of Ancient Greece. During the rise of the Byzantine Empire, every city that possessed this heritage (Athens, Alexandria, Antioch and Istanbul) were within the borders of the empire.
The philosophy of Ancient Greece and science were mingled with the engineering, law and military order of the Roman Empire. This magical formula functioned as a centuries-long driving force for the Byzantine Empire.
7. Nika Revolt and Codex Justinian
Even though Justinian I was the most successful Byzantine emperor, various adverse developments happened during his reign. For instance, long wars with the Goths over the dominance of Italy hurt the Byzantine Empire badly. Moreover, the policies of Justinian led to a bloody Nika Revolt in 532.
The most important buildings were set to fire during this revolt but it was crushed by a famous general named Belisarius. He cornered 30,000 rebels in the Hippodrome and violently slaughtered them. It should be noted that it was Empress Theodora who persuaded the despairing Justinian to stand up to the rebels.
Yet, this disaster also triggered one of the world’s most important architectural achievements. A magnificent structure like Hagia Sophia was built in place of the destroyed Great Church.
Justinian owed most of his fame to Codex Justinian, a compilation of the Roman laws. This work laid the foundation of today’s civil code.
The Byzantine Empire faced immense losses after Justinian I. The borders of the empire that Justinian left were so huge that it was impossible to control them in the long run. Moreover, the bubonic plague in Justinian’s last years had cut the population of the empire in half.
8. The Spread of Islam
Great wars were fought between the Byzantine Empire and the neighboring Persians at the beginning of the 600s. In the beginning, the Persians marched to as far as the heart of Anatolia. However, Emperor Heraclius became the savior of the empire at the last minute. He drove the Persians away from Anatolia and looted Ctesiphon, the legendary capital of the Sasanian Empire.
Emperor Heraclius was one of the unluckiest emperors in the history of the Byzantine Empire. Although the first years of his reign were filled with glorious victories, he lost half of the lands of the empire before his death. But how did the tide turn around so quickly?
While the Byzantine and Persian Empire were going at it hammer and tongs, an unprecedented alliance was being built. An Islamic army was formed after the spread of Islam by Mohammed and this highly motivated army began a series of conquests.
The severity of the situation wasn’t realized until the Islamic army first attacked the Byzantine lands. When the whole Byzantine army that was supposed to suppress the attacks was wiped out, it was noticed that the Islamic army was a serious threat. However, the spread of Islam had already begun and the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean would change completely.
9. Byzantine-Arab Wars
The Byzantine-Arab wars were a marathon that would last 400 years, and the first battle started in 636. The battle known as the Battle of Yarmouk lasted for 6 days and it was a landslide victory for the Arabs. The biggest misfortune of the Byzantine Empire was that Khalid ibn al-Walid led the Islamic army.
Khalid was one of the greatest commanders in the history of Islam and he encircled the Byzantine army with clever tactics and destroyed half of it. As the Byzantine Empire suffered big losses due to long wars with the Persians, this proved to an unrecoverable catastrophic result for them.
Emperor Herklius had thought he started a long prosperous period after defeating the Persians. However, his expectations proved to be empty. Even before his death, the most important cities of the Byzantine Empire, namely Alexandria, Jerusalem and Damascus were lost.
The two arch-enemies of the Roman Empire, which were the Persians on the eastern front and Huns on the western front, became history and new powers replaced them. From that point on, the greatest enemies of the Byzantine Empire were the Islamic armies in the east and the Bulgars that settled in Thrace in the west.
10. Byzantine Iconoclasm
The struggle between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire lasted for years and a big number of important cities were lost during the Rashidun Caliphate (the first four caliphs) era. However, the danger grew bigger after Muawiyah I (Governor of Damascus) took control. Umayyad Caliphate, founded by Muawiyah, became so powerful that it reached the gates of Constantinople.
In this decline period of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Leo III ascended the throne. He was the first member of the Isaurian dynasty. He grew up in a challenging environment with hardships and this probably contributed to his development as a soldier. He believed that religious organizations and especially the monasteries grew too rich and they were poisoning the public.
Therefore, he initiated a period known as Byzantine Iconoclasm. The icons, mosaics and frescos that contributed to the power of the church were destroyed. He didn’t want the church to influence the public via these items. Moreover, he confiscated the properties of monasteries and they were transferred to the state treasury.
Men who were secluded in monasteries were exempt from military service before Leo III. However, the emperor made military reforms and changed this practice. After long attempts, Leo III and his successors were able to put the empire back on track. However, Iconoclasm interrupted art in the Byzantine Empire, which was completely based on religion.
11. Byzantine Empire Map under Basil II
When the Macedonian dynasty took power, the Byzantine Empire was just recovering. Macedonian emperors accelerated the process of empowerment and restored religious figures. Therefore, the famous icons, mosaics and frescos of the Byzantine Empire began to be produced again.
In this era, geopolitical threats diminished. Therefore, a period of prosperity was possible as in the early Byzantine Empire history. During the reign of Emperor Basil II, the empire reached its widest borders before its collapse. You can see the achievements of this period in the image called Byzantine Empire Map under Basil II above.
Basil II, aka the Bulgar Slayer, stormed the battlegrounds and he was regarded as the most successful Byzantine Emperor on the battlefront. However, he repeated the same mistake many powerful rulers did. As he didn’t want anyone around him who could potentially overshadow his authority, the empire didn’t have anyone to replace him after Basil II’s death.
12. The Great Schism
After the death of Basil II, the bureaucrats who married a woman from Macedonian dynasty became emperors. These bureaucrats didn’t know much about military issues and they cut the budget of the army to keep control of the empire. Thus, they neutralized powerful generals in the army.
However, this power struggle led to the decay of the army. When the Byzantine army’s power was at its peak under Basil II’s reign, it became destitute in a very short time. And the defeats that followed one another demoralized the empire.
At such sensitive times, a fight broke out between the two leaders of the Christian world. The Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople excommunicated each other, which confirmed the separation of the Western and Eastern churches.
Due to this division known as Great Schizm, Catholics and Orthodox got separated irreversibly from that point on. The Great Schizm in 1054 paved the way to the Sack of Constantinople, which I will mention below.
You can see how Catholic and Orthodox Christians were separated from the map above. The conflict between Latin and Greek cults has existed throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire. However, The Great Schism caused irreversible damage in Christendom. The separation that started in 1054 and lasted until 1950 shows the seriousness of the conflict.
13. The Byzantium and the Seljuk Empire
In the years that catastrophes followed one another, a new and deadly enemy appeared. The Seljuks who migrated from Central Asia settled at Isfahan in Persia and they built the Seljuk Empire. The Byzantium and the Seljuk Empire had become neighbors.
The Sultans of the Seljuk Empire, who took control of the holy cities and proclaimed “the Sword of Islam” by the Abbasid Caliph, reached an enormous power. And Romanos IV Diogenes ascended the throne under such a circumstance. Romanos IV was of a military origin emperor and he wanted to clear the wreck the emperors from the bureaucracy created and raise the empire back on its feet.
Romanos IV had an impulsive and bold nature and he wasn’t favored in the capital. The established families in Constantinople were digging his pit. In the beginning, he was successful on the battlefield and he influenced people. However, his campaign in Eastern Anatolia was going to be his end.
14. The Battle of Manzikert
Romanos IV wanted to defeat the Seljuk ruler Alp Arslan and secure the eastern borders of the empire. However, the intelligence service of Byzantium could not contribute to this plan of the emperor.
When he set off to capture Manzikert, an important fortress, he thought the Sultan was in Damascus. Therefore, in response to the possibility of an attack by Alp Arslan, half of his army was stationed in the south.
When he reached Manzikert with half of his forces, he found himself in front of Alp Arslan and the Seljuk army, which was mostly cavalry. The Byzantines were still superior, but some of the officers in the army were openly hostile to the emperor.
One wing of the Byzantine army collapsed during the Battle of Manzikert. The soldiers panicked and started fleeing. If General Andronikos Doukas, the rearguard, intervened, he could rally the army. However, he chose to withdraw from the battlefield.
Realizing the situation, the Seljuks trapped the Byzantine infantry with pincer movement. Despite all the efforts of the Varangian Guard, the emperor was taken prisoner.
The Doukas family, who betrayed the emperor, took the throne. However, their overthrow of Romanos at the cost of losing a war brought the empire to the brink of collapse. The Seljuks, who broke the Byzantine defense, conquered Anatolia.
15. The Sack of Constantinople
The Byzantine Empire was on the verge of collapse. The empire faced its heaviest losses in its history one after another. The Turks’ fast march to Anatolia alerted European countries and a series of Crusades began by the Pope’s order.
A big number of crusaders were able to march to Jerusalem. Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos took advantage of the situation and took Eastern Anatolia back from the Seljuk Empire.
However, the 2nd and 3rd crusades were unsuccessful. Saladin and the Islamic rulers neutralized the Crusaders and took Jerusalem back. The Pope wanted Jerusalem badly, so he ordered the 4th Crusade.
There was a Venetian Doge named Enrico Dandolo commanding the 4th Crusade. He was covetous and full of hate towards the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines and the Republic of Venice under his command were in rivalry for a long time due to the trade in the Eastern Mediterranean . Moreover, the Byzantine Empire was the heart of Orthodox Christianity while Enrico Dandolo was a devout Catholic.
Enrico Dandolo didn’t miss the chance and seized Constantinople by taking advantage of the fights for the throne. Back then, Istanbul was the most beautiful city in the world. However, it was wrecked after the Sack of Constantinople.
16. The Decline of the Byzantine Empire
The Sack of Constantinople lasted for 57 years (1204-1261) and it led the decline of the Byzantine Empire. The imperial capital, Constantinople, never survived the effects of this occupation. The emperors who took the capital back from the crusaders found a ruined city in 1261. The empire was bankrupt and it was impossible to fix the broken monuments.
The Byzantine Empire was able to stay alive for 200 years under these conditions. The Seljuk Empire fell and the Sultanate of Rum was founded instead. Despite clashes from time to time, both states continued to exist.
17. Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire
When the Sultanate of Rum Empire fell apart, various Turkish chiefdoms emerged. Anatolia was filled with chiefdoms of different sizes. However, one of them stood out thanks to successful strategic moves.
The Ottomans’ policy of expansion into the West caused land loss in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines lost important cities such as Nicaea, Bursa and Adrianople respectively. These cities were of utmost importance and this can be inferred from the fact that the Ottoman Empire declared Bursa as capital first and Adrianople later.
The inevitable end was near. The Byzantine Empire was losing the Northwest Anatolia piece by piece to the Ottomans and it was stuck in the Historical Peninsula of Istanbul. You can see the map of the Byzantine Empire just before the fall of Constantinople above. The remaining Byzantine lands were so small that it is not even clearly visible in the image.
Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire were now fighting for Constantinople. Bayezid I and Murad II tried to conquer Istanbul but they failed. The Battle of Ankara (1402) and the Crusades in the Balkans (1444) interrupted the siege of Constantinople. In addition, the Venetians and Genoese, the Italian trade colonies, were breaking the blockade every time.
18. The Fall of Constantinople
When Mehmed II, the seventh Ottoman sultan, ascended the throne, he built a great fortress on the Bosphorus. He had learned from his father’s failure and wanted to block the Venetian and Genoese aid from the Black Sea.
The desperate emperor had to seek help from the Pope. Upon his request, Emperor John VIII Paleologos was invited to a council held in Florence. Orthodox and Catholic clergy who came together could not find a common way. Thus the meeting was inconclusive.
When the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos ascended the throne, the situation was hopeless. Because while the emperor and patriarch were hoping for help from the west, the people opposed it. The memories of the Sack of Constantinople of 1204 were still fresh and no one wanted Latins.
Military support from the west remained very limited. The Genoese commander Giovanni Giustiniani and his troops fought to the death, but the defenders were few in number. On the other hand, the Ottomans had both a strong artillery and a large elite infantry group called the Janissaries.
After weeks of siege, on May 29, 1453, the fall of Constantinople took place. This event, which was the end of Byzantine history, was a new beginning for the Ottoman Empire. They immediately declared Istanbul the capital. Thus, Constantinople became the capital of a powerful empire again.
Byzantine Empire Facts, Map, History by Serhat Engul