The Byzantine Empire: History, Culture & Timeline

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  • 0:00 Origin of the Byzantine Empire
  • 0:51 History & Culture of…
  • 3:15 End of the Byzantine Empire
  • 4:07 Timeline of Byzantine Empire
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Brazinski
In this lesson, you'll learn about the historical and cultural timeline of the Byzantine Empire and a bit about its famous emperors, Constantine and Justinian, seeing just how this 'New Rome' was established.

Origin of the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire started as the Eastern Roman Empire in 330 CE when Constantine, a Roman emperor, founded Constantinople, the Roman Empire's new capital, on the ancient site of Byzantium.

'Byzantine' is a 19th century term that modern scholars have applied to this culture and its people. Byzantines, on the other hand, called themselves 'Romans' from the beginning of the Byzantine Empire until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453, which was long after the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 CE. Thus, most of the history of Byzantium is a continuation of the Roman period, and most of the culture of Byzantium is a continuation of the Roman way of life.

History and Culture of the Byzantine Empire

One of the major changes in Byzantine culture from late Roman culture is the emergence of Christianity. After Constantine issued the 313 Edict of Milan, which made Christianity a tolerable religion, the practice of Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire at an unprecedented rate. Churches and other meeting places quickly developed and changed the landscape.

As the years passed, emperors such as Theodosius the Great took it upon themselves to promote Christianity throughout the empire to the point where it overtook Paganism. For example, Theodosius the Great closed the famous philosophical schools in Athens, where Plato and Aristotle had taught centuries earlier.

The language of the Byzantine Empire also shifted during this time. From the reign of Constantine to Justinian, the official court language was Latin. This meant that laws and official documents were written in Latin. However, Greek was the primary spoken language. After Justinian's reign, Byzantine Greek became the primary language for both spoken and official written documents. However, Western Europe still spoke Latin, which caused a language divide in communication. This led to difficulties and confusion in terms of religious terminologies and laws. Think of a language barrier you might have encountered; now imagine that for the communications between the Eastern Greeks and the Western Latins in the Middle and Late Byzantine periods.

Given the differences in language and customs, among other things, that developed over Byzantium's history, the Eastern Greeks and Western Latins endured what is known as the Great Schism in 1054. The two Churches, now the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, had different beliefs concerning Jesus Christ, the nature of God, and the date of Easter. The two factions split, forming two separate religions that still exist today.

Tensions further rose in 1204, when the Latins launched the Fourth Crusade. The Fourth Crusade was intended to re-capture Jerusalem from the Muslims; however, the majority of the Latin forces did not make it to the Holy Land. Instead, they sacked Constantinople, which marked a major turning point in the history of the East-West Christian Schism.

End of the Byzantine Empire

In 1261, Michael VIII Palaeologos recaptured Constantinople from the Latins. Michael VIII's return to Constantinople also marked a rebirth in classical studies and traditional Byzantine education, which is called the Palaeologan Renaissance. The Byzantine Empire continued to flourish until the final sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks.

The Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453 and renamed the city Istanbul. The Ottomans were also primarily Islamic, so the majority of earlier churches were converted into mosques. In this period, people were still speaking Byzantine Greek, but the language would eventually evolve into Modern Greek in the 19th century. Ultimately, Turkish culture took over, and the Byzantine Empire was no more.

Timeline of the Byzantine Empire

Early Byzantine Period (330-726 CE)

330 CE: Constantine founds Constantinople, the new capital of the Roman Empire, on the ancient site of Byzantium.

476 CE: Visigoths sack Rome, which causes the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

526 CE: Justinian becomes the Byzantine Emperor. Justinian wants to revive the Empire to its earliest and greatest form and reconquers North Africa and Italy.

568 CE: After Justinian's re-conquest, the Lombards sack Northern Italy and besiege Rome.

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