The Byzantine Empire is a name that historians give to the Eastern Roman Empire as it existed after 395 AD. The Byzantines themselves did not use this term to describe their empire. The eastern half of the Roman Empire differed considerably from the Roman Empire, so modern historians invented this term to discuss Byzantine history as part of the Middle Ages rather than as part of Classical antiquity.
The term "Byzantine" derives from the original name of the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople. This city's name was Byzantium until after the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital city to Byzantium. It was subsequently named after him. One of the reasons he moved the capital was because the Western Roman Empire was in a period of decline, and the eastern half was richer and more politically stable. The split between the empire had been evolving since the late 3rd century AD. Some time after Constantine's death, the split became permanent, and the two halves were governed by separate emperors. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, but the Eastern Roman Empire continued for nearly 1,000 years.
History of the Byzantine Empire during the Middle Ages
During the Early Middle Ages (476 - 1000 AD), the Byzantine Empire was one of the most powerful states in Europe. It was a Christian empire and, as such, had a close connection to the people of Western Europe. However, by the year 1054 AD, the religious differences between Byzantine Christians and Western European Christians had grown so large that the Byzantines formed their own branch of Christianity. This branch is now known as the Eastern Orthodox faith.
The territory and power of the Byzantine Empire began to decline from the 7th century onwards. Various Islamic powers gradually chipped away at Byzantine territory.
The empire further declined when Crusader armies from Western Europe sacked Constantinople in 1204 and established the Frankokratia, a Western European-controlled state within Byzantine territory in Greece and Asia Minor. This state was overthrown by the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus, who restored Greek control to the Byzantine Empire and initiated the Palaeologan Renaissance. However, after this renaissance ended, the Byzantine Empire once again fell into decline. In 1453 AD, the city of Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. This event marked the end of Byzantine history.
The city of Constantinople is now called Istanbul and is the largest city in the nation of Turkey. However, many remnants of the Byzantine Empire can still be seen here. The most famous is the Hagia Sophia, a large church that was a showpiece of Byzantine engineering and architecture.
Byzantine Empire Culture
The Byzantine Empire's social structure was largely based on the old Roman Empire's society. The head of state and head of government was the emperor, who ruled as an absolute monarch. Beneath him was the imperial senate, which acted as the legislative branch of government. The Byzantine Empire also had a large and elaborate bureaucracy that helped govern its vast territories.
Emperor Constantine (c. 272 - 337 AD) is considered the founder of the Byzantine Empire. However, this designation is somewhat problematic because scholars do not believe that the Byzantine Empire developed into a distinct civilization until several decades after Constantine's death. Historians refer to Constantine as the founder because of his decision to move the capital of the empire to Byzantium. In other words, he set the wheels in motion for the formation of a new society.
Constantine is also famous for granting official toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire. He himself converted to Christianity towards the end of his life. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity had become the religion of both the Eastern and Western Roman empires.
The theological split between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians was a gradual one. The main dispute rested on who was considered the head of the Christian faith. Westerners believed it was the pope, while the Byzantine people increasingly came to see the Patriarch of Constantinople as the head of the faith. The Catholic Church had a powerful political ally in the Holy Roman Empire, which was founded in 800 AD by Charlemagne, king of the Franks. This mega-state often came into conflict with the Byzantines throughout much of the Middle Ages. Eventually, the differences between the Catholic Church and the Byzantines led to the Great Schism of 1054.
What Language Was Spoken in Byzantium?
The official language of the Byzantine Empire was Greek. During the days of the Roman Empire, the western half of the empire used Latin as its official language, while the eastern half used Greek. The last Byzantine emperor to speak Latin as a native language was Justinian (482 - 565 AD). Despite having Latin as his native language, he emphasized the continued use of Greek as the empire's official language.
The Greek language is divided up into several different stages. The Greek spoken by the Byzantines differed in both grammar and vocabulary from the ancient language spoken by Plato and Aristotle. It was also somewhat different from the koine dialect that was used in Roman times. Byzantine Greek was the immediate predecessor to the Modern Greek language spoken in Greece and Cyprus today.
Knowledge of the Greek language had largely been lost in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. After the empire collapsed in 1453 AD, a large number of Byzantine scholars fled to Italy and brought their knowledge, and some of their texts, with them. This helped to stimulate a revival in the study of Greek in Western Europe during the Renaissance period. Over the next several centuries, knowledge of both Latin and ancient Greek became the hallmark of an educated person in Western Europe.
It should also be noted, however, that the Byzantine Empire was a multi-ethnic state. There were many non-Greek linguistic minorities living within its territories. Besides Latin speakers, another important linguistic minority was the Armenians.
Byzantine Empire Timeline
Here is a timeline of some important dates from the history of the Byzantine Empire:
- 330 AD - Constantine moves the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople)
- c. 395 AD - Beginning of Byzantine civilization
- 410 AD - Visigoths sack Rome leading to a further decline of the Western Roman Empire
- 476 AD - Fall of the Roman Empire
- 614 AD - Persians sack Jerusalem
- 800 AD - Charlemagne, king of the Franks, is crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in Rome
- 1054 AD - Great Schism
- 1204 AD - Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade by Western European soldiers
- 1261 AD - Michael VIII Palaeologus expels Western European control of Constantinople and establishes a revival of Byzantine culture known as the Palaeologan Renaissance
- 1453 AD - Invasion of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks and the simultaneous fall of the Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire began as the Eastern Roman Empire. The capital of the Byzantine Empire was the city of Constantinople, which is now called Istanbul. The Eastern Roman Empire used Greek as its official language, while the Western Roman Empire used Latin. Latin was even used to a certain extent as an official legal language in the East until after the time of Justinian. Byzantine culture was Christian in nature, and the Byzantine Empire founded a new branch of Christianity called the Eastern Orthodox faith.
Among the events that occurred during the time of the empire were: the Visigoth sack of Rome in 410 AD, the fall of Rome in 476 AD, and the Persian sack of Jerusalem in 614 AD. The Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453 AD when it was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks.
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How did the Byzantine Empire start?
The Byzantine Empire started in the 4th century with the decline of the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire gradually grew into a separate civilization, which historians call the Byzantine Empire.
What was the Byzantine Empire called by its citizens?
The Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans. In other words, they did not called them selves Byzantines. The Greek word for Romans is Rhomaioi.
What was the Byzantine Empire known for?
The Byzantine Empire is known for being one of the most powerful states in Europe and the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. It is also known for founding a new branch of Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox faith.
Why do we say Byzantine?
Byzantine is a name given by modern historians to the Eastern Roman Empire. It derives from the original name for the capital of the empire, Byzantium. Byzantium became Constantinople and later Istanbul.
What is the timeline of Byzantine Empire?
The timeline of the Byzantine Empire ran from circa 395 AD to 1453 AD. Some historians push the date further back to 330 AD.
How long did the Byzantine Empire endure?
The Byzantine Empire endured from circa 395 AD to 1453 AD for a total of 1,058 years. The empire's influence on European culture lasted much longer.
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