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5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed
In a previous article, I looked at the reasons why the Byzantine Empire lasted so long. In this piece, I will analyze the events that led to its ultimate downfall. As was the case with the Western Roman Empire, its Eastern equivalent was faced with an array of foreign enemies. However, it was arguably its internal issues that led to its demise.
Emperors like Justinian I tried to expand the empire but throughout its history, a host of problems arose and contributed to its downfall. No single issue caused the end of the Byzantine Empire. It was made great by its economy, military, unity, and ability to take advantage of the moments of weakness of rivals and neighbors. Over time, its economic and military might waned and along with it, the empire&rsquos capacity to seize an opportunity. Add in civil unrest, natural disasters and powerful enemies such as the Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Bulgars, Normans, Slavs, and Ottoman Turks, and you can see why the Byzantine Empire eventually crumbled.
Constantinople and Civil Reform
Constantine moved the seat of the empire, and introduced important changes into its civil and religious constitution. In 330, he founded Constantinople as a second Rome on the site of Byzantium, which was well-positioned astride the trade routes between east and west it was a superb base from which to guard the Danube river, and was reasonably close to the eastern frontiers. Constantine also began the building of the great fortified walls, which were expanded and rebuilt in subsequent ages. J. B. Bury asserts that “the foundation of Constantinople […] inaugurated a permanent division between the Eastern and Western, the Greek and the Latin, halves of the empire—a division to which events had already pointed—and affected decisively the whole subsequent history of Europe.”
Constantine built upon the administrative reforms introduced by Diocletian. He stabilized the coinage (the gold solidus that he introduced became a highly prized and stable currency), and made changes to the structure of the army. Under Constantine, the empire had recovered much of its military strength and enjoyed a period of stability and prosperity. He also reconquered southern parts of Dacia, after defeating the Visigoths in 332, and he was planning a campaign against Sassanid Persia as well. To divide administrative responsibilities, Constantine replaced the single praetorian prefect, who had traditionally exercised both military and civil functions, with regional prefects enjoying civil authority alone. In the course of the 4th century, four great sections emerged from these Constantinian beginnings, and the practice of separating civil from military authority persisted until the 7th century.
From the Fourth Crusade to the Capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453
Legal and social status
The Fourth Crusade (1204) disrupted the Byzantine Empire and placed its Jewish communities under the various administrations set up by the Latin (i.e., Western European) countries which had taken part in the crusade. The Jewish quarter in Constantinople, Pera, was burned down and pillaged during the sack of the city by the Latins. After the Latin rule ended in 1261 Jews lived both in Pera and outside the area, including parts of the city where the Venetians had been given special rights and commercial privileges. The existence of a Jewish quarter outside Pera elicited a complaint from the patriarch Athanasius to Emperor Andronicus ii (1282–1328), who before 1319 assigned the Jews a quarter near that of the Venetians, although they were not restricted to that area. Many engaged in tanning, and the majority apparently were wealthy. Neither the native dynasty nor the Latin rulers made basic changes in the status of the Jews. In the parts of Greece and the Balkans, however, which fell to various Greek rulers and minor royalty (often referred to as "despots"), proscriptions of Judaism were issued at times, as in Epirus and Salonika under Theodore i Angelus (1214–1230), and in Nicaea under John iii Vatatzes (1222–1254). Other former imperial lands, such as Chalcis, Rhodes, Patras, and Cyprus, were ruled by the Genoese, the Venetians, the Knights of Malta, the Veronese, and the Turks. The Jews continued to pursue their previous occupations, particularly the silk trade and commerce.
The Byzantine Empire in the mid-9th century CE - History
The Byzantine Empire, sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, originally founded as Byzantium ). It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Both “Byzantine Empire” and “Eastern Roman Empire” are historiographical terms created after the end of the realm its citizens continued to refer to their empire as the Roman Empire, and thought of themselves as Romans. Although the people living in the Eastern Roman Empire referred to themselves as Romans, they were distinguished by their Greek heritage, Orthodox Christianity, and their regional connections. Over time, the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire transformed. Greek replaced Latin as the language of the empire. Christianity became more important in daily life, although the culture’s pagan Roman past still exerted an influence.
Several signal events from the 4th to 6th centuries mark the period of transition during which the Roman Empire’s Greek east and Latin west divided. Constantine I (r. 324-337) reorganized the empire, made Constantinople the new capital, and legalized Christianity. Under Theodosius I (r. 379-395), Christianity became the empire’s official state religion, and other religious practices were proscribed. Finally, under the reign of Heraclius (r. 610-641), the empire’s military and administration were restructured and adopted Greek for official use instead of Latin. Thus, although the Roman state continued and Roman state traditions were maintained, modern historians distinguish Byzantium from ancient Rome insofar as it was centered on Constantinople, oriented towards Greek rather than Latin culture, and characterized by Orthodox Christianity.
Just as the Byzantine Empire represented the political continuation of the Roman Empire, Byzantine art and culture developed directly out of the art of the Roman Empire, which was itself profoundly influenced by ancient Greek art. Byzantine art never lost sight of this classical heritage. For example, the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, was adorned with a large number of classical sculptures, although they eventually became an object of some puzzlement for its inhabitants. And indeed, the art produced during the Byzantine Empire, although marked by periodic revivals of a classical aesthetic, was above all marked by the development of a new aesthetic. Thus, although the Byzantine Empire had a multi-ethnic character during most of its history, and preserved Romano-Hellenistic traditions, it became identified by its western and northern contemporaries with its increasingly predominant Greek element and its own unique cultural developments.
Map of Constantinople: A map of Constantinople, the capital and founding city of the Byzantine Empire, drawn in 1422 CE by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti. This is the oldest surviving map of the city and the only one that predates the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453 CE.
The first use of the term “Byzantine” to label the later years of the Roman Empire was in 1557, when the German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his work, Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ, a collection of historical sources. The term comes from “Byzantium,” the name of the city of Constantinople before it became Constantine’s capital. This older name of the city would rarely be used from this point onward except in historical or poetic contexts. However, it was not until the mid-19th century that the term came into general use in the western world calling it the “Byzantine Empire” helped to emphasize its differences from the earlier Latin-speaking Roman Empire, centered on Rome.
The term “Byzantine” was also useful to the many western European states that also claimed to be the true successors of the Roman Empire, as it was used to delegitimize the claims of the Byzantines as true Romans. In modern times, the term “Byzantine” has also come to have a pejorative sense, used to describe things that are overly complex or arcane. “Byzantine diplomacy” has come to mean excess use of trickery and behind-the-scenes manipulation. These are all based on medieval stereotypes about the Byzantine Empire that developed as western Europeans came into contact with the Byzantines, and were perplexed by their more structured government.
No such distinction existed in the Islamic and Slavic worlds, where the empire was more straightforwardly seen as the continuation of the Roman Empire. In the Islamic world, the Roman Empire was known primarily as Rûm. The name millet-i Rûm, or “Roman nation,” was used by the Ottomans through the 20th century to refer to the former subjects of the Byzantine Empire, that is, the Orthodox Christian community within Ottoman realms.
Iconoclasm is defined as 1) the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices as well as 2) the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical the doctrine of iconoclasts.
There has been more than one episode of iconoclasm within history and the Christian church it is not an anomaly to the Byzantine or Orthodox culture(s). Relating to the Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox church, is the iconoclast movement of “breaking images” due to the theological debates between the Byzantine state and Orthodox church. Because of the span of years where icons were not allowed to be produced or used in worship, not many still exist. Whether they were destroyed or painted over, the controversy was not without the loss of beautiful works of art. Neither icons of religious and figures or heads of state were safe from destruction.
It still occurs today when new political regimes take over, they tend to destroy the iconic images from the previous political or religious group(s). It is happening in the Middle East and even the United States where statues dedicated to Civil-War faction leaders are torn down because of the ideas they represent regarding racism and slavery.
Threats to the Byzantine Empire
The empire was combating numerous challenges throughout its history, some of which ultimately led to its demise. During the Late antiquity period, the Byzantine Empire faced invasions from the Atilla the Hun, the Visigoths, the Vandals, and the Alans from numerous fronts. The 5th century was marked by the rise of Islam in the Mediterranean, with the Arabs engaging in war with the Byzantine Empire, which led to the fall of Egypt and the Levant between 634 CE and 641 CE. The Battle of Yarmouk in 636 CE between the Byzantine Empire and the Rashidun Caliphate saw the empire experience another humiliating defeat. After the victory, the Arabs revved up their campaigns against the empire and succeeded to conquer Asia Minor, Sicily, Crete, and Cyprus. The fall of Egypt was a major blow to the Byzantine Empire, as the region was an important source of grain and manufactured goods. In the 11th century, the Byzantine Empire saw the rise of another challenge in the form of the Seljuq Empire, with the two empires clashing in the Battle of Manzikert in August 1071, which resulted in the decisive defeat of the Byzantine Empire. The humiliating defeat was compounded with Byzantine’s loss of Armenia and Anatolia to the Seljuq Empire. The century also saw the invasion of the Normans who had captured vast territories in Italy by the 12th century.
The Byzantine Empire: The Nika Revolt
The eastern remnant of the Roman Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire,had a tumultuous existence, gaining, and then losing, vast amounts of territory. The Nika Revolts, discussed here by the historian Procopius were one example.
At this time [January 1, 532] an insurrection broke out unexpectedly in Byzantium among the populace, and, contrary to expectation, it proved to be a very serious affair, and ended in great harm to the people and to the senate, as the following account will show.
In every city the population has been divided for a long time past into the Blue and the Green factions but within comparatively recent times it has come about that, for the sake of these names and the seats which the rival factions occupy in watching the games, they spend their money and abandon their bodies to the most cruel tortures, and even do not think it unworthy to die a most shameful death. And they fight against their opponents knowing not for what end they imperil themselves, but knowing well that, even if they overcome their enemy the fight, the conclusion of the matter for them will be to be carried off straight away to the prison, and finally, after suffering extreme torture, to be destroyed. So there grows up in them against their fellow men a hostility which has no cause, and at no time does it cease or disappear, for it gives place neither to the ties of marriage nor of relationship nor of friendship, and the case is the same even though those who differ with respect to these colours be brothers or any other kin….I, for my part, am unable to call this anything except a disease of the soul….
At this time the officers of the city administration in Byzantium were leading away to death some of the rioters. But the members of the two factions conspiring together and declaring a truce with each other, seized the prisoners and then straightway entered the prison and released all those who were in confinement there…. Fire was applied to the city as if it had fallen under the hand of an enemy…. The emperor and his consort, with a few members of the senate shut themselves up ["Conquer"]….
On the fifth day of the insurrection in the late afternoon the Emperor Justinian gave orders to Hypatius and Pompeius, nephews of the late emperor, Anastasius, to go home as quickly as possible, either because he suspected that some plot was being matured by them against his own person, or, it may be, because destiny brought them to this. But they feared that the people would force them to the throne (as in fact fell out), and they said that they would be doing wrong if they should abandon their sovereign when he found himself in such danger. When the Emperor Justinian heard this, he inclined still more to his suspicion, and he bade them quit the palace instantly….
On the following day at sunrise it became known to the people that both men bad quit the palace where they had been staying. So the whole population ran to them, and they declared Hypatius emperor and prepared to lead him to the market place to assume the power. But the wife of Hypatius, Mary, a discreet woman, who had the greatest reputation for prudence, laid hold of her husband and would not let go, but cried out with loud lamentation and with entreaties to all her kinsmen that the people were leading him on the road to death. But since the throng overpowered her, she unwillingly released her husband, and he by no will of his own came to the Forum of Constantine, where they summoned him to the throne….
The emperor and his court were deliberating as to whether it would be better for them if they remained or if they took to flight in the ships. And many opinions were expressed favouring either course. And the Empress Theodora also spoke to the following effect: “My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety…. For one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.” When the queen had spoken thus, all were filled with boldness, and, turning their thoughts towards resistance, they began to consider how they might be able to defend themselves if any hostile force should come against them….All the hopes of the emperor were centred upon Belisarius and Mundus, of whom the former, Belisarius, had recently returned from the Persian war bringing with him a following which was both powerful and imposing, and in particular he had a great number of spearmen and guards who bad received their training in battles and the perils of warfare….
When Hypatius reached the hippodrome, he went up immediately to where the emperor is accustomed to take his place and seated himself on the royal throne from which the emperor was always accustomed to view the equestrian and athletic contests. And from the palace Mundus went out through the gate which, from the circling descent, has been given the name of the Snail…. Belisarius, with difficulty and not without danger and great exertion, made his way over ground covered by ruins and half-burned buildings, and ascended to the stadium…. Concluding that he must go against the populace who had taken their stand in the hippodrome-a vast multitude crowding each other in great disorder-he drew his sword from its sheatb and, commanding the others to do likewise, with a shout be advanced upon them at a run. But the populace, who were standing in a mass and not in order, at the sight of armoured soldiers who had a great reputatation for bravery and experience in war, and seeing that they struck out with their swords unsparingly, beat a hasty retreat…. [Mundus] straightway made a sally into the hippodrome through the entrance which they call the Gate of Death. Then indeed from both sides the partisans of Hypatius were assailed with might and main and destroyed…. There perished among the populace on that day more than thirty thousand…. The soldiers killed both [Hypatius and Pompeius] on the following day and threw bodies into the sea…. This was the end of the insurrection in Byzantium.
Source: Procopius, History of the Wars, I, xxiv, translated by H.B. Dewing (New York: Macmillan, 1914), pp. 219-230.
Questions for consideration:
- What caused the revolt?
- What was the reaction of the Emperor Justinian?
- What role did the Empress Theodora play in this affair?
The Byzantine Empire was known to its inhabitants as:
- the "Roman Empire" or the "Empire of the Romans" (Latin: Imperium Romanum, Imperium Romanorum Greek: Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων Basileia tōn Rhōmaiōn, Ἀρχὴ τῶν Ῥωμαίων Archē tōn Rhōmaiōn),
- "Romania" (Latin: Romania Greek: Ῥωμανία Rhōmania), [n 1]
- the "Roman Republic" (Latin: Res Publica Romana Greek: Πολιτεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων , Politeia tōn Rhōmaiōn),
- "Graecia" (Greek: Γραικία meaning "land of the Greeks"), 
- "Rhōmais" (Greek: Ῥωμαΐς ). 
In 324, the Roman Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium, and he renamed the city Constantinople. 150 years later, after the city of Rome was slowly taken over by Germanic people during the Migration period, Constantinople was the only remaining capital of the Empire. This Eastern empire had a smaller territory than the original Roman Empire.
Wars in the West Edit
The Byzantine Empire tried to take back Rome and Italy from the Germans. Between 530–555 AD, the Byzantines won many battles and took back Rome.
These gains did not last however. More Germans came and eventually Italy and Rome was lost again. Worse was to come when Avar and Slavic peoples came to take modern Bulgaria and Greece from the Byzantines. Gradually, after the 560s the invaders won much of the Balkans. These invaders were later followed by the Bulgarians. The Avars and Bulgarians were both Turkic peoples at first. They ruled over Slavic people called "Sklavinai" and slowly absorbed Slavic language and customs.
Wars in the East Edit
After western Rome was captured by Germanic people, the Empire continued to control modern Egypt, Greece, Palestine, Syria and Turkey. However, another Empire, known as the Persian or Sassanid Empire, tried to take these lands for itself. Between 224–628 AD, the Romans and the Persians fought many battles, with many men killed in the fighting. Eventually, the Persians were defeated in modern-day Iraq, near the ancient city of Nineveh in 627 AD, allowing the Byzantines to keep their lands.
After this, another enemy appeared: the Arabs. The Byzantines were economically damaged by the battles with the Persians. They could not withstand the Arabs. Palestine, Syria and Egypt were lost between 635 and 645. However, the Byzantines defended Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the Arab advance stopped.
In 718 AD, the Arabs were defeated outside Constantinople, ending the Arab threat in the east, but leaving the Byzantine Empire severely weakened. In the west, the Byzantines launched a number of attacks against the Bulgarians. Some of these were successful, others were not and led to the deaths of many emperors. Over time, the Byzantine Empire would became weaker as it loss land to outside invaders.
Recovery in the west Edit
Between 1007–1014, the ambitious Byzantine Emperor Basil II attacked Bulgaria many times and eventually won a great victory. Later, he fully recaptured Greece, adding it back to the Byzantine Empire. He then went on to conquer Bulgaria, which was completed in 1018.
Recovery in the east Edit
In the east, the Arabs once again became a threat to the Empire. However, Basil II's attacks won many more victories. Much of Syria was restored to the Empire and Turkey and Armenia were secured. After 1025, the Arabs were no longer a threat to the Byzantine Empire.
Start of Decline (1025–1071) Edit
After the Byzantine Emperor Basil II died, many unskilled Emperors came to the throne. They wasted the money of the Empire and reduced its army. This meant that it could not defend itself well against enemies if they would attack. Later, the Byzantines relied on mercenaries, soldiers who fought for money and not for their country, so they were less loyal and reliable and more expensive. Because they had mercenaries, military generals were able to rise to power and grab it from the elaborate bureaucracy, a system of administration where tasks are divided by departments.
Rise of the Turks (1071–1091) Edit
A large number of people known as the Turks rode on horseback from central Asia and attacked the Byzantine Empire. The Seljuk Empire took all of Turkey from the Byzantines by 1091. However, the Byzantines received help from people in Europe. This help is known as the First Crusade. Many knights and soldiers left to help the Byzantines but also to secure Jerusalem for Christians, which at the time was in Muslim hands.
The Byzantines survive (1091–1185) Edit
The Byzantine Empire survived and with the help of the Europeans took back half of Turkey from the Turks, with the other half remaining under the Turks. The Byzantines survived because three good Emperors ruled one after the other, allowing the Byzantines to grow strong again.
The Byzantines become weak again (1185-1261) Edit
After the three good Emperors, the remaining Emperors ruled badly and again wasted a lot of money and soldiers.
In the west, the Europeans betrayed the Byzantines and attacked their capital, Constantinople. The Byzantines lost their capital in 1204 and they did not take it back until 1261. The Byzantines were then divided into many smaller Greek states that were fighting with each other for the throne of the Empire.
The Turks take the Byzantines (1261–1453) Edit
After the Byzantines took back Constantinople, they were too busy fighting the Europeans who had betrayed them and could not find enough soldiers or money to fight the new Ottoman Empire of the Turks. All of Anatolia was lost by 1331. In 1369, the Turks crossed over from Turkey and into Greece, taking over much of Greece between 1354–1450.
The Byzantines lost so much land, money and soldiers that they became very weak and begged for help from the Europeans. Some soldiers and ships came from Italy and the Pope to assist the Byzantines when the Turks attacked Constantinople in April 1453. They were very outnumbered though, and the walls of Constantinople were badly damaged by cannons used by the Turks. At the end of May 1453, the Turks captured Constantinople by entering through one of the gates along the walls and the Empire came to an end. The city was plundered for three days. At the end, the population which had not been able to escape, was deported to Edirne, Bursa and other Ottoman cities, leaving the city deserted except for the Jews of Balat and the Genoese of Pera. After that, Constantinople became Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which it would be until the 1900s, when the capital was moved to Ankara, a city in the Asian part of Turkey.
Comparing and Contrasting the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe
The Byzantine Empire and Western Europe originally were part of the Roman Empire, but by the Middle Ages, they were vastly different, though they shared common traits, but by the 300's, the Byzantine Empire had far surpassed Western Europe in trade and economics and political unity, while both empires were having arguments over religion.
Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire had very different government structures. The Byzantine Empire was ruled by an Emperor and instead of direct rule, used civil service to effectively run the empire. This contrasted to the political structure of Western Europe which was divided into different "countries" only by which language was spoken and where the feudal system was prominent, without any centralized government until the Late Middle Ages. Although both the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe were predominantly Christian, Christianity led to a major divide between the two. Clashes between the Pope and Patriarch over who had more authority and power and over interpretation of practices within the church lead to the Great Schism. The Christian church split into the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy Church. Along with religious differences, Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire had vastly different economies. European practices of manorialism lead to an agricultural based economy with little trading outside of Europe, while the Byzantine Empire became the wealthiest empire in Europe. This is because Constantinople was the bridge between Europe and the rest of the world, and became the center of east-west trade. Constantinople was the major trading stop in Europe on the Silk Road, not only because of its geographical location but also because of its diverse population.
Christianity played a major role in both the governments of Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. In the Byzantine Empire, the Patriarch had a direct influence on politics, just as in Western Europe, where the Pope was regarded as a higher.