The Development of the Byzantine Empire Video

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  • 0:08 Abandoning Rome
  • 1:14 Cultural Differences
  • 2:09 The Empire Strikes Back
  • 4:44 Decline
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The word 'byzantine' is often used to mean something worthy of a spy movie. Learn more about the empire that earned every bit of that word, and how it lasted for more than a thousand years in this lesson.

Abandoning Rome

Today we're going to talk about one of the most confusing empires in history, the Byzantine Empire. But don't worry; in the next few minutes, you're going to understand a great deal about them. That said, many people do find them to be confusing, as many of the historical maps you see in books just have them suddenly appear.

In fact, while most empires begin with the establishment of a capital, the Byzantines start with the utter destruction of a capital. By 476 CE Rome had been completely destroyed, and it had lost many of its territories. How destroyed, you ask?

Consider this: when the barbarians entered the city and found the imperial robes and crowns of the ruler of the Western Roman Empire, they didn't plunder them or pretend to be emperors themselves, but instead sent them to Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, addressed to the emperor, and said 'No one here will be using these anymore.'

Cultural Differences

Believe it or not, the emperor in Constantinople wasn't all that upset. After all, the Western Roman Empire had been acting like its own country for more than 100 years, and frankly, it was inferior to the newer Eastern Roman Empire. For starters, the Western Roman Empire was much poorer than the Eastern Roman Empire, as the Eastern Roman Empire had many trade routes and more economic activity.

Additionally, the Western Roman Empire struggled defending itself, while the Eastern Roman Empire managed to keep the Persians, whose military was 500 years ahead of its time, at bay. The Western Roman Empire stank. Literally. Only the super rich would bathe in the Western Roman Empire. On the other hand, people in the Eastern Roman Empire bathed multiple times a week.

The Empire Strikes Back

As I said earlier, by 476 Rome in the West had been destroyed. Still, it took some time for the Eastern Empire to really care. Emperors tried to re-conquer lost lands, but kept coming up short, as they had to keep a careful eye on Persia. Finally, a great emperor by the name of Justinian managed to conquer much of the old Western Roman lands back, but also completely changed the face of the empire.

Justinian the Great, as he was later known, was quite an interesting character. Importantly, he was a bookworm, which normally did not earn the love and admiration of any ancient people, especially those who were constantly under threat of invasion.

Second, he not only fell in love with his wife Theodora despite her low social standing, but actually listened to her. Once, when faced with a massive revolt, Justinian's advisors told him he should just run away. But Theodora stood between Justinian and his ship and said that a real emperor would stand his ground no matter what, and that as a real empress, she would be staying. This embarrassed Justinian, and he stayed put and successfully ended the revolt.

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