successor state to the Roman Empire, also called Eastern Empire and East
Roman Empire. It was named after Byzantium, which Emperor Constantine
I rebuilt (A.D. 330) as Constantinople and made the capital of the entire
Roman Empire. Although not foreseen at the time, a division into Eastern
and Western empires became permanent after the accession (395) of Honorius
in the West and Arcadius in the East.
Throughout its existence the Byzantine Empire was subject to important
changes in its boundaries. The core of the empire consisted of the Balkan
Peninsula (i.e., Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, Greece proper, the Greek isles,
and Illyria) and of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The empire combined
Roman political tradition, Hellenic culture, and Christian beliefs. Greek
was the prevalent language, but Latin long continued in official use.
The characteristic Eastern influence began with Constantine I, who also
introduced Christianity. Orthodoxy triumphed over Arianism under Arcadius'
predecessor, Theodosius I, but violent religious controversy was chronic.
The reigns (395527) of Arcadius, Theodosius II, Marcian, Leo I,
Leo II, Zeno, Anastasius I, and Justin I were marked by the invasions
of the Visigoths under Alaric I, of the Huns of Attila, and of the Avars,
the Slavs, the Bulgars, and the Persians.
After the Western
Empire fell (476) to Odoacer, Italy, Gaul, and Spain were theoretically
united under Zeno but were actually dominated by, respectively, the Ostrogoths,
the Franks, and the Visigoths, while Africa was under the Vandals. During
this period arose the heresies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism and the
political parties of Blues and Greens to divide the Byzantines.
Revival and Hellenization
Under the rule (52765) of Justinian I and Theodora, Byzantine power
grew. Their great generals, Belisarius and Narses, checked the Persians,
repressed political factions, and recovered Italy and Africa, while Tribonian
helped the emperor to codify Roman law. During Justinian's reign a great
revival of Hellenism took place in literature, and Byzantine art and architecture
entered their most glorious period. Much was lost again under his successors.
The Lombards conquered most of Italy; however, the Pentapolis (Rimini,
Ancona, Fano, Pesaro, and Senigallia), Rome, Sardinia, Corsica, Liguria,
and the coasts of S Italy and Sicily long remained under Byzantine rule,
and at Ravenna the exarchs governed until 751. The Persians, under Khosrow
I, made great gains against the empire, though Emperor Maurice temporarily
checked them in 591. The emperor Heraclius (61041) defeated the
Persians but was barely able to save Constantinople from the Avars. Muslim
conquests soon afterward wrested Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Africa, and
Sicily from the empire. Heraclius's attempt to reconcile Monophysitism
and orthodoxy merely led to the new heresy of Monotheletism. His military
reorganization of the provinces into themes proved effective and was continued
by Constans II (64148). Constantine IV (66885) saved Constantinople
from Arab attack. The 7th cent. was marked by increasing Hellenization
of the empire, outwardly symbolized by the adoption of the Greek title
Basileus by the emperors. The church, under the patriarch of Constantinople,
became increasingly important in public affairs. Theology, cultivated
by emperors and monks alike, was pushed to extremes of subtlety. Literature
and art became chiefly religious.
Under Justinian II and his successors the empire was again menaced by
Arabs and Bulgars, but the Isaurian emperors Leo III (71741) and
Constantine V stopped the Arab advance and recovered Asia Minor. The grave
issue of iconoclasm, which they precipitated, led to the loss of Rome.
In 800, during the reign of Irene, the Frank Charlemagne was crowned emperor
of the West at Rome. Thus ended even the theoretical primacy of Byzantium
A Truly Eastern State
The political division of East and West was paralleled by a religious
schism, intensified by the patriarch Photius, between the Roman and the
Orthodox Eastern Church, later culminating in a complete break (1054).
In all aspects the Byzantine Empire, having lost its claim to universality,
became a Greek monarchy, though Constantinople still remained the center
of both Greek and Roman civilization. Compared with its intellectuals,
artists, writers, and artisans, those of Western Europe were crude and
barbarous, though sometimes more vigorous and original. In the empire
the administrative machinery was huge, and competition among the courtiers
was intense. Complex diplomacy, intrigue, and gross violence marked the
course of events; yet moral decay did not prevent such emperors as Basil
I, founder of the Macedonian dynasty, and his successors (notably Leo
VI, Romanus I, Constantine VII, Nicephorus II, John I, and Basil II) from
giving the empire a period of splendor and power (8671025). The
eastern frontier was pushed to the Euphrates River, the Bulgars were subjugated,
and the Balkan Peninsula was recovered. Russia, converted to Christianity,
became an outpost of Byzantine culture. In the unceasing struggle between
the great landowners and the small peasantry, most of the emperors favored
the peasants. Economic prosperity was paralleled by a new golden age in
science, philosophy, and architecture.
The Ebb of Power
With the rule of Zoë (102850) anarchy and decline set in. The
Seljuk Turks increased their attacks, and with the defeat (1071) of Romanus
IV at Manzikert most of Asia Minor was permanently lost. The Normans under
Robert Guiscard and Bohemond I seized S Italy and attacked the Balkans.
Venice ruled the Adriatic and challenged Byzantine commercial dominance
in the East, and the Bulgars and Serbs reasserted their independence.
Alexius I (10811118) took advantage of the First Crusade to recover
some territory in Asia Minor and to restore Byzantine prestige, but his
successors of the Comnenus dynasty were at best able to postpone the disintegration
of the empire. After the death (1180) of Manuel I the Angelus dynasty
unwittingly precipitated the cataclysm of the Fourth Crusade. In 1204
the Crusaders and the Venetians sacked Constantinople and set up a new
empire in Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece. The remainder of the empire broke
into independent states, notably the empires of Nicaea and of Trebizond
and the despotate of Epirus.
In 1261 the Nicaean emperor Michael VIII conquered most of the tottering
Latin empire and reestablished the Byzantine Empire under the Palaeologus
family (12611453). The reconstructed empire was soon attacked from
all sides, notably by Charles I of Naples, by Venice, by the Ottoman Turks,
by the new kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria, and by Catalonian adventurers
under Roger de Flor. At the same time, the empire began to break down
from withinthe capital was at odds with the provinces; ambitious
magnates were greedy for land and privileges; religious orders fought
each other vigorously; and church and state were rivals for power.
Eventually the Turks encircled the empire and reduced it to Constantinople
and its environs. Manuel II and John VIII vainly asked the West for aid,
and, in 1453, Constantinople fell to Sultan Muhammad II after a final
desperate defense under Constantine XI. This is one of the dates conventionally
accepted as the beginning of the modern age. The collapse of the empire
opened the way for the vast expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Vienna
itself and also enabled Ivan III of Russia, son-in-law of Constantine
XI, to claim a theoretical succession to the imperial title.
The classic, though biased, work on Byzantine history is Gibbon's Decline
and Fall of the Roman Empire. More recent standard works are those of
J. B. Bury, C. Diehl, A. A. Vasil'ev, G. Ostrogorsky, and N. H. Baynes.
See also studies by J. M. Hussey (1967, 1986); R. J. H. Jenkins (1967);
D. Obolensky (1971); M. Angold (1985).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2000 Columbia University