The people who we know today as the Byzantines called themselves Romans, spoke Greek, and lived in modern-day Turkey. (The name Byzantine came from the founder of the empire's capital, a Greek man named Byzas, who may have existed only in legend.) While the areas that were once ruled by the Roman Empire fell into disorder as conflicting tribes fought for control of their territory, the Byzantines maintained a legacy of learning and a civilization inherited from the Greeks and Romans for more than a thousand years. In the meantime they developed extensive trading relationships with the Middle East and the Orient, including India and China. From 476 C.E. until the collapse of the empire in 1453 C.E. , the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful and developed civilization in the Western world.
The Roman Empire had been founded in 27 B.C.E. following the fall of the Roman Republic (509–27 B.C.E. ). By the fourth century C.E. the Roman Empire had grown very large, extending east into Asia Minor (which included modern-day Turkey) and northern Africa, including Egypt. In 395 C.E. , following the death of the Roman emperor Theodosius (347–395 C.E. ), the vast empire was divided into two halves, with the Eastern Roman Empire having the city of Constantinople, once known as Byzantium, as its capital. The Western Roman Empire, centered in Rome, came under increasing attacks from barbarian (people from foreign lands) tribes, and in 476 C.E. the Roman emperor was killed, leading to the downfall of Rome. Only the Eastern Roman Empire, known now as the Byzantine Empire, survived.
The Byzantine Empire that survived the fall of Rome was no minor civilization. Its capital, Constantinople, was one of the great early cities, with a population of nearly one million people, several imperial palaces, and a vast system of roads, shops, and public spaces. It also included the major cities of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria. While most of western Europe failed to develop during the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 C.E. ), the Byzantine Empire established powerful armies, a complex system of government and church officials, and trading networks that spanned the Middle East and Asia.
Byzantine society was very hierarchical, which meant that people lived at different levels of rank and status. At the top of the society was the emperor, who made the major decisions affecting the empire. He was aided by an inner circle of advisers and bureaucrats. There was also a Byzantine senate, which prepared laws for approval by the emperor. Emperors usually chose their successor, either a son or a trusted adviser. The emperors ruled with the help of a strong and well-trained army that had as many as 120,000 members. Surrounding the emperor was an aristocracy of very wealthy people; the major cities also had a small middle class, made up of shop owners and traders. The majority of the population, however, was poor and either labored in the city or grew their own food on small plots of land that were controlled by wealthy landlords.
The center of Byzantine culture was the Christian church, and it was headed by the emperor. Christian rituals and holidays organized Byzantine life. Byzantine Christians held beliefs similar to Roman Catholics: they believed that Jesus was the son of God, and they believed in the Trinity, which consisted of God the father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. But Byzantines and later Italians, who were Roman Catholic, fought over who held the highest authority: with Italians favoring the pope in Rome and the Byzantines preferring the bishop of Constantinople. In 1054 the two parts of the church would split, into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, in what is known as the Great Schism.
The influence of Roman customs was very great in the early years of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine people called themselves Romans, they spoke Latin like Romans, and they dressed in Roman clothes. They inherited the Greek and Roman love of learning and preserved many documents from these civilizations in their libraries. (Much of what we know about ancient Greece and Rome comes from Byzantine libraries, which were not destroyed by barbarian invaders.)
Yet the influence of Rome slowly faded. In the seventh century C.E. the official language of the empire was changed to Greek. The church was less involved in creating rules for people than it had
Byzantines were great traders. They opened trade routes throughout the Middle East and into Asia and soon were exposed to Eastern styles of clothing, jewels, and decoration. Byzantine costume thus became a mix of Roman garments, such as the tunic (shirt) and the stola (a type of long dress), mixed with Eastern ornament and pattern. It was this mix that made Byzantine culture distinct.
The mixture of Eastern and Western influences also could be seen in the many churches and monasteries built during the years of the Byzantine Empire. Such religious structures were built throughout the empire, but none was greater than the Church of Hagia Sophia (also known as Saint Sophia), built in Constantinople by the emperor Justinian (483–565) in the sixth century C.E. The massive church, with its huge central dome and many spires, took ten thousand workers five years to build. It still stands in the modern Turkish city of Istanbul, the new name for the old capital. This and other churches have led scholars to claim that the Byzantine Empire's greatest achievements were in architecture.
Like the Roman Empire before it, the Byzantine Empire experienced a number of challenges to its rule. Efforts to expand Byzantine rule under Emperor Justinian led to conflicts with Persians, North Africans, and the Ostrogoths living in Italy. Over the thousand years of Byzantine rule, battles with these and other surrounding peoples led to the expansion and contraction of the empire. Beginning in the eleventh century C.E. Christian armies from western Europe began to travel through the Byzantine Empire to reclaim "holy lands" from Turks and Arabs in the Middle East. These armies, known as crusaders, sparked a series of wars with Turks and Arabs that brought great conflict to the empire. Byzantines argued with the crusaders, and both sides fought against their non-Christian enemies. These conflicts, extended over a period of hundreds of years, exhausted the size and strength of the empire. In 1453 a Turkish army led by Mehmed II (1432–1481) captured the city of Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire.
The great city of Constantinople survived and was renamed Istanbul, part of the Ottoman Empire that ruled in Turkey and the surrounding area until the end of World War I (1914–18). In the West, the same crusades that helped end the Byzantine Empire sparked the end of the Middle Ages and led to a period of cultural and intellectual growth in western Europe that paved the way for modern societies to develop as we know them. The Byzantine Empire, then, served as a bridge between the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and the modern kingdoms and later nation-states of Europe.
Angold, Michael. Byzantium: The Bridge from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.
Corrick, James A. The Byzantine Empire. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1997.
Marston, Elsa. The Byzantine Empire. New York: Benchmark Books, 2003.
Rice, Tamara Talbot. Byzantium. New York: John Day Co., 1969.