A Millennium of Glory: The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire
Late antiquity was one of the most dramatic periods in our history – a turbulent time in which nations and peoples rose and fell, vying for power and territory in a merciless fight for prominence. Great migrations shook the known world, centuries-old traditions became obsolete, and strange new religions came into play – the world was changing.
And out of this change, this violent shifting of powers, a single realm managed to thrive and rise to the top. A mighty force that would survive great changes and dominate the European scene for more than a millennium – the Byzantine Empire.
Introduction to the Byzantine Empire
The proud descendants of the immortal Roman Empire, the Byzantine emperors and their realm would come to play an important role in the creation of the world as we know it today. And the ultimate, sad fate of this colossal empire would set in motion a string of changes that would resonate through the history forever.
If the Byzantine tale had a different ending, who knows how the world would look today? And to mark this monumental significance, we are revisiting this crucial story of our time – the story of the Byzantine Empire.
The Crisis and The Split of The Roman Empire: The Birth of the Byzantine Empire
Every ending is followed by a new beginning, in whatever form. And just so, the earliest history of the Byzantine Empire takes us to the turbulent final days of the classical Roman Empire as we all know it. Byzantine history is proud and often magnificent, but it all started from a very unstable and ugly period.
During the 3rd century, the colossal Roman Empire experienced a critical period of instability, nearly collapsing from the pressure of barbarian invasions and political and economic struggles. This crisis of the 3rd century would establish a growing split of the unified empire into two distinct halves – the Western and the Eastern Roman Empires.
Governed separately, these two halves became increasingly estranged, with the west being under Latin cultural sphere, and the east under the Hellenistic sphere. And so, it was that from 285 AD, the empire became divided – the western half was ruled from Rome, while the eastern half was ruled from Byzantium.
In 395 the Roman Empire was divided. (AKIKA3D / CC BY-SA 4.0)
In year 330 AD, Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople, a new city which he founded on the site of ancient Byzantium. This city, a place that would play a crucial role in history, was located in a strategic spot, on the trade route between Europe and Asia. Another important decree of Constantine was his tolerance of Christianity, and he eventually became the first emperor to adopt this religion.
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Emperor Constantine, the last emperor of the Byzantine Empire. (Cplakidas / Public Domain)
Theodosius I, his successor, went a step further and made Christianity the official religion of the state, setting in motion a new era of history. He was also the last sole emperor to rule the two halves of the empire.
Leaping Into Glory: The Early History of the Byzantine Empire
This vastness of the empire, and the eventual emergence of two distinct halves, led to them having totally different problems and obstacles. The Hun Empire, a large threat for the eastern empire, finally collapsed in 453 AD and brought a period of peace. But the Western Roman Empire was not so lucky.
Continually deteriorating under the ceaseless migrations and invasion of the ‘barbaric’ Germanic peoples, the Western Roman Empire finally collapsed in the second half of the 400’s, with the deposition of western Emperor Romulus Augustulus. This important event left the eastern Emperor Zeno as the sole ruler, the claimant to the title of emperor of the Roman Empire, which would live on in the east.
That remainder of the venerable Imperium Romanum, later to be called the Byzantine Empire, would continue for many centuries to come, and would endure a rich history that witnessed some of the most crucial events. In simple terms, the timeline of the Byzantium was a rollercoaster – periods of stability and expansion, followed by disasters and periods of rebuilding.
But the first glorious chapter of that lengthy tale began with the rule of an exceptional man – it began with Justinian the First.
The Golden Age of the Byzantine Empire: Justinian I
The Justinian dynasty began with the rule of Justin I, a usurper to the throne who ruled for nine years and was succeeded by his nephew, Justinian. Justinian’s rule had a rough start and one of his first tastes of rule was a revolt.
The Nika Riots of 532 AD were aimed against him, protesting his reforms and high taxes. But the new emperor managed to overcome this difficulty and went on to solidify his newest reforms – the ‘Corpus Juris Civilis’ – a set of judicial works that still forms the basis of the civil law for many modern states.
The success of these reforms was followed by other accomplishments. On Justinian’s orders, his general Belisarius managed to re-conquer some of the territories lost with the fall of the Western Roman Empire – namely the province of Africa and parts of the Mediterranean.
Justinian I ruler of the Byzantine Empire who implemented many reforms. (PetarM / CC BY-SA 4.0)
But one incredible feat was the height of Justinian’s acclaimed rule – the construction of Hagia Sophia. This monumental cathedral was so illustrious and grand, that it was unlike anything built up to that point. An incredible feat of construction, it was a defining, turning point in Byzantine architecture and held the title of the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years.
Once completed, the Hagia Sophia was a definitive statement of Byzantine power and the wealth of Constantinople. Less than a thousand years after its completion, this majestic building was turned into a mosque, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Hagia Sophia built by Emperor Constantine of the Byzantine Empire. Source: Givaga / Adobe Stock.
Barbarians at the Gates: The Loss of Provinces
In the decades following Justinian’s remarkable reign, new emperors came and went, and things were not looking up for Byzantium – hence the popular name for these years – ‘The Dark Age of Byzantium’. The reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine, in the years after Justinian’s death, saw a gradual loss of all territories that were re-conquered so recently.
Increasing invasions of Lombards saw an almost complete loss of the Italian peninsula, the Franks were pushing from Gaul, and the coastal regions of the Iberian Peninsula soon fell to the invading Visigoths. To make things worse, the Empire’s northern borders saw ever-increasing incursions from migrating Slavic tribes – aided by Avars, these tribes crossed the river Danube and became a considerable threat.
Centuries that followed saw the ever-shifting political scene – peace treaties were made and broken, kingdoms rose and fell. Gradually Byzantine emperors solidified their rule once again and reclaimed some of the territories they lost.
Slavs were now a considerable entity in the Balkan peninsula, besides the Bulgarian Empire that would be a constant enemy of the empire until the rule of Basil the Second. But up to that point, the golden age of Justinian’s rule would never again come in such splendor.
The Byzantine Empire Rises from the Ashes: The Macedonian Renaissance
One of Byzantium’s most prominent ruling families, the Macedonian dynasty, would begin its nearly two and a half centuries long rule in 867 with the accession of Basil I. They would rule until 1056. And during this period, a so-called Macedonian Renaissance was born – a period of flourishing in arts, letters, and culture.
The coronation of Basil I as emperor of the Byzantine Empire. (Cplakidas / Public Domain)
The empire expanded and gradually shifted from defending its borders to once again re-conquering lost lands. For perhaps the first time since the rule of Justinian, the Byzantine Empire would once again enter into a ‘golden age’, bolstered by the rule of able emperors such as Basil I, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, and Basil II the Bulgar Slayer, with philosophy, arts, and cultural integrity greatly renewed.
The start of this able dynasty – one of Byzantium’s best ruling family – began with a rather inspiring, ambitious person – Basil I. In a true ‘game of thrones’ fashion, Basil’s story is truly remarkable. Born a simple peasant, he eventually entered into service of a relative to the Emperor.
By means unknown, but easily speculated, Basil gained favor of a wealthy widow – Danielis – one of the richest Byzantine landowners. Eventually, he gained favor with the emperor himself, after marrying his mistress. Once he managed this, he had the emperor murdered, and would rule the Byzantine Empire for nineteen years, with exceptional ability and skill.
Such stories, full of intrigue and treachery, are numerous in the long history of Byzantium, but Basil’s definitely stands out. To singlehandedly rise from a peasant to the emperor of the Byzantine Empire was a feat worthy of history’s loftiest heights.
And such heights were certainly marked by the numerous crucial events that transpired during the centuries of Macedonian dynasty’s rule. Basil II’s final subjugation of the Bulgarian Empire, as well as the gradual Christianization of pagan Slavs in the Balkans, all had significant importance, which is echoed even to the modern times.
The Last Breaths of an Empire: The Sack and Fall of Constantinople
In such lengthy histories of mighty empires, no flourishing period lasts forever. The history of the Byzantine Empire fluctuates greatly, and after the ending of the Macedonian dynasty, new centuries came with new rulers. New dynasties ascended to the throne – Komnenid, Doukid, Angelid, Laskarid, and Palaiologian dynasties each had its own ups and downs, with some having more success than others.
But the medieval age was a turbulent era and new forces became influential, with the political and religious scene of Europe shifting with increasing volatility. And this instability quickly spilled over and affected Byzantium, when one of the worst blows in its almost millennium long history was delivered – the sack of Constantinople.
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The taking of Constantinople. (World Imaging / Public Domain)
In 1204, joined by Alexios Angelos, the son of the deposed Emperor Isaac II Angelos, a large crusader army took Constantinople and pillaged, burned, looted, and raped for three days completely sacking the town and stealing many precious relics. This catastrophic event forever diminished the relations between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches and saw the temporary end of the Byzantine Empire – it was divided in several Crusader states, mainly the Empire of Nicaea, the Despotate of Epirus, and the Empire of Trebizond.
But, in 1261, Constantinople was recaptured, and the empire once more entered a period of shaky stability – but in truth, it would never fully recuperate from the crippling blow that was the sacking of Constantinople. Decades that followed became increasingly difficult, with numerous temporary solutions, civil unrest and, from 1341 to 1347, a ravaging civil war. In the midst of the instability, the neighboring Serbian ruler - Stefan Dušan the Mighty – successfully conquered much of the Byzantine territories, thus expanding and establishing the Serbian Empire, making it the region’s major power.
These crippling losses meant that the power of the Byzantine Empire was at an end, and every new emperor had more and more difficulties to stabilize the realm. Constantinople became severely under-populated and dilapidated, and saw the dramatic rise of the Ottomans in the 1400’s.
This Ottoman rise culminated in 1453, when Sultan Mehmed, with a force of 80,000 men, besieged Constantinople for two whole months. The defenders were only 7,000 strong.
The entry of Sultan Mehmed into Constantinople, the fall of the Byzantine Empire. (Karamanli86 / Public Domain)
The last ruler of the once mighty Byzantine Empire, Constantine XI Palaiologos, died in hand-to-hand combat in a desperate attempt to defend his city. On May 29th, 1453, Constantinople fell and with that, the Byzantine Empire – the millennium old descendant of Imperium Romanum – was no more.
An Orthodox Glory: Importance and Cultural Impact
In its history, Byzantium was often at the forefront of every important cultural renaissance, exerting its art, philosophy, and laws to much of Europe. With its gradual shift from Latin influenced Roman culture, to a Hellenic sphere influenced by Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Byzantine Empire developed a distinct style both in art and ruling, and it would dominate the courts of many European kingdoms and empires.
Its heavily religious focus on architecture, music, and art was a crucial separation from the western Latin influence of Catholic Europe and would shape the future of the continent in every way.
One of the most famous of the surviving Byzantine mosaics from the Byzantine Empire located in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople – the image of Christ on the walls of the upper southern gallery. (Soerfm / CC BY-SA 3.0)
By far one of the lengthiest, richest tales in our history, the story of the Byzantine Empire is soaked with intrigues, usurpers, ambitious rulers, and conquests – all of which have done little to mar the beauty of the Eastern Roman Empire, or its wealth and splendor. But time and history are ruthless, and every mighty empire will eventually crack and buckle under the pressure of many enemies that wish to swell its borders and plunder the riches.
So it was that an empire that lasted for nearly a millennium – a lifespan almost unheard of in history – met its end at the crucial turning point in history – an end that was fated, dictated by the rapidly changing political scene. And it was this very end – the tragic fall of the Byzantine Empire - that would leave a long lasting impact on Europe for centuries to follow.
Top image: Hagia Sophia built by Emperor Constantine of the Byzantine Empire. Source: feferoni / Adobe Stock.
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