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The Slow Decline of the Byzantine Empire

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  • 0:09 Overview of Byzantine Empire
  • 0:54 Internal Instability
  • 2:35 Outside Invasion
  • 3:46 Fall of Constantinople
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore the slow decline of the Byzantine Empire. It will highlight internal instability and outside invasion as two of the major factors that led to the 1453 fall of Constantinople and the empire.

Overview of Byzantine Empire

In the year 1453, Turks from the Ottoman Empire captured the city of Constantinople bringing an official end to the Byzantine Empire. However, as we're about to learn, it was more than Turkish guns that brought an end to this grand empire. For centuries, the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, had enjoyed prosperity. Situated along profitable trade routes and protected by the Black Sea, the empire thrived. For centuries, it seemed that the Roman Empire of the East would eclipse the grandeur once found in Rome. However, like Rome, the Byzantine Empire would face a gradual decline, aided by internal instability and external invasion.

Internal Instability

For this lesson, we'll start with internal instability. In doing so, we'll blame the nobility for the empire's woes. To explain, early in the empire's history, most of its population was made up of free men who were given land in turn for military service. Fortunately for the empire, these men also paid taxes. With this, the Byzantine Empire not only had a large tax base, but it also had a large military at its disposal.

However, this all changed as members of the nobility began claiming large areas of land as their own. Not only did they begin swallowing up land, but they also began placing the poorer class into a state of bondage in which they were tied to the land and owed their allegiance to the noble land owner rather than the empire. This has come to be known as serfdom. As the peasant class was swallowed by the nobility, the tax base and the military of the Byzantine Empire began to evaporate. As if this wasn't bad enough, the empire was then forced to depend on mercenary armies and cities from the West for protection.

This was especially troublesome because mercenaries were rather expensive. Making matters worse, the Byzantine Empire and the cities of the West were not on the best of terms. So, not only did this deplete the empire's treasury, but it also allowed Western merchants, specifically those from Venice, free access to the markets of Constantinople. When the Venetians began selling goods at a cheaper price, the coffers of the empire were dealt another blow.

Outside Invasion

While struggling with internal issues, the empire was also threatened by outside invasion. In 1071, the beginning of the end began when Turks marched on the empire and handed it a devastating defeat at the Battle of Manzikert. At the battle's end, the empire saw the loss of much of Asia Minor and the Balkans. Oddly enough for the Byzantine Empire, not only did they have to deal with the Turks, they also faced some serious grief from the Christians of the West! Remember those cities they didn't really get along with, but had to rely on for protection?

This came in the form of the Fourth Crusade, or Christendom's quest to free the Holy lands from Muslim control. To explain this odd twist, at the very beginning of the 13th century, Christians again marched toward the Holy lands. However, this time they decided to make a pit stop of sorts at the city of Constantinople, Byzantium's capital. Upon entering the city, the Western soldiers ransacked the city, claiming it as their own. Although the Byzantines would eventually recover from this attack, it further drained their already depleting resources.

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