The Slow Decline of the Byzantine Empire

Lesson Transcript
Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

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.

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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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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?

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Additional Activities

Prompts About the Decline of the Byzantine Empire:

Definitions Prompt:

Provide the definitions of the four bolded terms in the lesson (Byzantine Empire, serfdom, Battle of Manzikert, Fourth Crusade). Each definition should be at least one to two sentences in length.

Example: The Byzantine Empire is also sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire.

Timeline Prompt:

Make a timeline that lists the major military aspects of the decline of the Byzantine Empire.

Example: The year 1071 marked the beginning of a series of invasions that weakened the empire.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately one to two pages that explains how economic factors and class divisions weakened the Byzantine Empire. Specifically, be sure the describe the roles of the nobility, the establishment of serfdom, taxation, the use of mercenaries, and Western merchants.

Example: The growth of the nobility shrank the tax base, so the Byzantine Empire was becoming under-funded.

Essay Prompt 2:

In at least one page, write an essay that explains how foreign invasions weakened the Byzantine Empire.

Example: Financing the defense of costly foreign attacks was further reducing the empire's economic resources.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay of approximately three to four paragraphs that describes why the loss of Constantinople was so significant to the demise of the Byzantine Empire.

Example: The Turks had already conquered much of the Byzantine Empire, and Constantinople was essentially the only thing keeping the empire alive by the 1450s.

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