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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.
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.
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.
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.
610 CE: Persian forces take major sections of North Africa and Asia Minor from the Byzantines. However, Emperor Heraclius manages to win some of these territories back.
614 CE: Persians sack Jerusalem.
Middle Byzantine Period (726-1204 AD)
726-787 CE: First Iconoclasm. Emperor Leo III decrees that idols are sinful and that God's wrath is why the empire is losing territory so quickly.
815-843 CE: Second Iconoclasm. The use of Icons is restored.
1054: Start of the Great Schism.
Late Byzantine Period (1204-1453)
1204: Fourth Crusade: the Crusaders sack Constantinople. The Byzantine elites flee Constantinople for Nicaea.
1261: Michael VIII Palaeologos reconquers Constantinople. The Palaeologan Renaissance begins.
1453: The Ottoman Empire sacks Constantinople, causing the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine Empire started as the Eastern Roman Empire in 330 and lasted more than 1100 years until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453. It was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine through the creation of the city of Constantinople on the ancient site of Byzantium. The history and culture of Byzantium is a continuation of the Roman period and way of life.
The emergence of Christianity played a major role in Byzantine history and culture. 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. Eventually, emperors such as Theodosius the Great promoted Christianity to the point that it replaced Roman Paganism.
The language of the Byzantine Empire also changed during this time, moving from the official court language of Latin to Byzantine Greek. However, Western Europe still spoke Latin, which caused communication problems, especially in terms of religious terminologies and laws. Communication problems and religious differences eventually led to the Great Schism in 1054, when the two factions officially split, forming two separate religions that still exist today: Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.
Tensions further rose in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, when the Western European Crusaders sacked Constantinople. In 1261, Michael VIII Palaeologos recaptured Constantinople, setting off a rebirth of classical studies and traditional Byzantine education known as the Palaeologan Rennaissance.
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. However, these changes, among many others, drastically and permanently changed the history, culture, religion, and way of life of the Byzantine world again, and thus the Byzantine Empire was no more.
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Back To CourseAP World History: Tutoring Solution
30 chapters | 430 lessons
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