Byzantine Empire

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Byzantine Empire
Capital Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul)
Religion Christianity (state)
Demonym Byzantine
Currency Solidus, denarius, and hyperpyron

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The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, was the continuation of the Roman Empire centered in Constantinople during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The eastern half of the Empire survived the conditions that caused the fall of the West in the 5th century AD, and continued to exist until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire remained the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in the Mediterranean world. The term "Byzantine Empire" was only coined following the empire's demise; its citizens referred to the polity as the "Roman Empire" and to themselves as "Romans".[lower-alpha 1] Due to the imperial seat's move from Rome to Byzantium, the adoption of state Christianity, and the predominance of Greek instead of Latin, modern historians continue to make a distinction between the earlier "Roman Empire" and the later "Byzantine Empire".

During the earlier Pax Romana period, the western parts of the empire became increasingly Latinised, while the eastern parts largely retained their preexisting Hellenistic culture. This created a dichotomy between the Greek East and Latin West. These cultural spheres continued to diverge after Constantine I (r. 324–337) moved the capital to Constantinople and legalised Christianity. Under Theodosius I (r. 379–395), Christianity became the state religion, and other religious practices were proscribed. Greek gradually replaced Latin for official use as Latin fell into disuse.

The empire experienced several cycles of decline and recovery throughout its history, reaching its greatest extent after the fall of the west during the reign of Justinian I (r. 527–565), who briefly reconquered much of Italy and the western Mediterranean coast. The appearance of plague and a devastating war with Persia exhausted the empire's resources; the early Muslim conquests that followed saw the loss of the empire's richest provinces—Egypt and Syria—to the Rashidun Caliphate. In 698, Africa was lost to the Umayyad Caliphate, but the empire subsequently stabilised under the Isaurian dynasty. The empire was able to expand once more under the Macedonian dynasty, experiencing a two-century-long renaissance. This came to an end in 1071, with the defeat by the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert. Thereafter, periods of civil war and Seljuk incursion resulted in the loss of most of Asia Minor. The empire recovered during the Komnenian restoration, and Constantinople would remain the largest and wealthiest city in Europe until the 13th century.

The empire was dissolved in 1204, following the sack of Constantinople by Latin armies at the end of the Fourth Crusade; its former territories were then divided into competing Greek and Latin realms. Despite the eventual recovery of Constantinople in 1261, the reconstituted empire would wield only regional power during its final two centuries of existence. Its remaining territories were progressively annexed by the Ottomans in perennial wars fought throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 ultimately brought the empire to an end. Many refugees who had fled the city after its capture settled in Italy and throughout Europe, helping to ignite the Renaissance. The fall of Constantinople is sometimes used to mark the dividing line between the Middle Ages and the early modern period.


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The inhabitants of the empire, now generally termed Byzantines, thought of themselves as Romans (Romaioi). Their Islamic neighbours similarly called their empire the "land of the Romans" (Bilād al-Rūm), but the people of medieval Western Europe preferred to call them "Greeks" (Graeci), a term with connotations of effeminacy and deception.[1] The adjective "Byzantine", which derived from Byzantion (Latinised as Byzantium), the name of the Greek settlement Constantinople was established on, was only used to describe the inhabitants of that city; it never referred to the empire, which they called Romania—"Romanland".[2]

After the empire's fall, early modern scholars referred to the empire by many names, including the "Empire of Constantinople", the "Empire of the Greeks", the "Eastern Empire", the "Late Empire", the "Low Empire", and the “Roman Empire".[3] The increasing use of "Byzantine" and "Byzantine Empire" likely started with the 15th-century historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, whose works were widely propagated, including by Hieronymus Wolf. "Byzantine" was used adjectivally alongside terms such as "Empire of the Greeks" until the 19th century.[4] It is now the primary term, used to refer to all aspects of the empire; some modern historians believe that, as an originally prejudicial and inaccurate term, its use should be halted.[5]


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As the historiographical periodizations of "Roman history", "late antiquity", and "Byzantine history" significantly overlap, there is no consensus on a "foundation date" for the Byzantine Empire, if there was one at all. The growth of the study of "late antiquity" has led to some historians setting a start date in the seventh or eighth centuries.[6] Others believe a "new empire" began during changes in c. 300 AD.[7] Still others hold that these starting points are too early or too late, and instead begin c. 500.[8] Geoffrey Greatrex believes that it is impossible to precisely date the foundation of the Byzantine Empire.[9]

Early history (pre-518)

Four-way division of the Roman Empire under the Tetrarchy system established by Diocletian.

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In a series of conflicts between the third and first centuries BC, the Roman Republic gradually established hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean, while its government ultimately transformed into the one-person rule of an emperor. The Roman Empire enjoyed a period of relative stability until the third century AD, when a combination of external threats and internal instabilities caused the Roman state to splinter as regional armies acclaimed their generals as "soldier-emperors".[10] One of these, Diocletian (r. 284–305), seeing that the state was too big to be ruled by one man, attempted to fix the problem by instituting a Tetrarchy, or rule of four, and dividing the empire into eastern and western halves. Although the Tetrarchy system quickly failed, the division of the empire proved an enduring concept.[11]

Constantine I (r. 306–337) secured sole power in 324. Over the following six years, he rebuilt the city of Byzantium as a capital city, which was renamed Constantinople. Rome, the previous capital, was further from the important eastern provinces and in a less strategically important location; it was not esteemed by the "soldier-emperors" who ruled from the frontiers or by the empire's population who, having been granted citizenship, considered themselves "Roman".[12] Constantine extensively reformed the empire's military and civil administration and instituted the gold solidus as a stable currency.[13] He favoured Christianity, which he had converted to in 312.[14] Constantine's dynasty fought a lengthy conflict against Sasanid Persia and ended in 363 with the death of his son-in-law Julian.[15] The short Valentinianic dynasty, occupied with wars against barbarians, religious debates, and anti-corruption campaigns, ended in the East with the death of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.[16]

File:Roman-empire-395AD.svg Valens's successor, Theodosius I (r. 379–395), restored political stability in the east by allowing the Goths to settle in Roman territory;[17] he also twice intervened in the western half, defeating the usurpers Magnus Maximus and Eugenius in 388 and 394 respectively.[18] He actively condemned paganism, confirmed the primacy of Nicene Christianity over Arianism, and established Christianity as the Roman state religion.[19] He was the last emperor to rule both the western and eastern halves of the empire;[20] after his death, the West would be destabilised by a succession of "soldier-emperors", unlike the East, where administrators would continue to hold power. Theodosius II (r. 408–450) largely left the rule of the east to officials such as Anthemius, who constructed the Theodosian Walls to defend Constantinople, now firmly entrenched as Rome's capital.[21]

Theodosius' reign was marked by the theological dispute over Nestorianism, which was eventually deemed heretical, and by the formulation of the Codex Theodosianus law code.[22] It also saw the arrival of Attila's Huns, who ravaged the Balkans and exacted a massive tribute from the empire; Attilla however switched his attention to the rapidly-deteriorating western empire, and his people fractured after his death in 453.[23] After Leo I (r. 457–474) failed in his 468 attempt to reconquer the west, the warlord Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus in 476, killed his titular successor Julius Nepos in 480, and the office of western emperor was formally abolished.[24]

Through a combination of luck, cultural factors, and political decisions, the Eastern empire never suffered from rebellious barbarian vassals and was never ruled by barbarian warlords—the problems which ensured the downfall of the West.[25] Zeno (r. 474–491) convinced the problematic Ostrogoth king Theodoric to take control of Italy from Odoacer, which he did; dying with the empire at peace, Zeno was succeeded by Anastasius I (r. 491–518).[26] Although his Monophysitism brought occasional issues, Anastasius was a capable administrator and instituted several successful financial reforms including the abolition of the chrysargyron tax. He was the first emperor to die with no serious problems affecting his empire since Diocletian.[27]


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Emperor Justinian (left), and the general Belisarius (right). Mosaics from Basilica of San Vitale, 6th century)

The reign of Justinian I was a watershed in Byzantine history.[28] Following his accession in 527, the law-code was rewritten as the influential Corpus Juris Civilis and Justinian produced extensive legislation on provincial administration;[29] he reasserted imperial control over religion and morality through purges of non-Christians and "deviants";[30] and having ruthlessly subdued the 532 Nika revolt he rebuilt much of Constantinople, including the original Hagia Sophia.[31] Justinian took advantage of political instability in Italy to attempt the reconquest of lost western territories. The Vandal Kingdom in North Africa was subjugated in 534 by the general Belisarius, who then invaded Italy; the Ostrogothic Kingdom was destroyed in 554.[32]

In the 540s, however, Justinian began to suffer reversals on multiple fronts. Taking advantage of Constantinople's preoccupation with the West, Khosrow I of the Sasanian Empire invaded Byzantine territory and sacked Antioch in 540.[33] Meanwhile, the emperor's internal reforms and policies began to falter, not helped by a devastating plague that killed a large proportion of the population and severely weakened the empire's social and financial stability.[34] The most difficult period of the Ostrogothic war, against their king Totila, came during this decade, while divisions among Justinian's advisors undercut the administration's response.[35] He also did not fully heal the divisions in Chalcedonian Christianity, as the Second Council of Constantinople failed to make a real difference.[36] Justinian died in 565; his reign saw more success than that of any other Byzantine emperor, yet he left his empire under massive strain.[37]

Maps of the Byzantine Empire, showing the territorial changes between the deaths of Justinian in 565 (top) and Heraclius in 641 (center) and the accession of Leo III in 717 (bottom)

Financially and territorially overextended, Justin II (r. 565–578) was soon at war on many fronts. The Lombards, fearing the aggressive Avars, conquered much of northern Italy by 572.[38] The Sasanian wars restarted that year, and continued until the emperor Maurice finally emerged victorious in 591; by that time, the Avars and Slavs had repeatedly invaded the Balkans, causing great instability.[39] Maurice campaigned extensively in the region during the 590s, but although he managed to re-establish Byzantine control up to the Danube, he pushed his troops too far in 602—they mutinied, proclaimed an officer named Phocas as emperor, and executed Maurice.[40] The Sasanians seized their moment and reopened hostilities; Phocas was unable to cope and soon faced a major rebellion led by Heraclius. Phocas lost Constantinople in 610 and was soon executed, but the destructive civil war accelerated the empire's decline.[41]

Under Khosrow II, the Sassanids occupied the Levant and Egypt and pushed into Asia Minor, while Byzantine control of Italy slipped and the Avars and Slavs ran riot in the Balkans.[42] Although Heraclius repelled a siege of Constantinople in 626 and then, brilliantly, invaded and defeated the Sassanids in 627, this was a pyrrhic victory.[43] The early Muslim conquests soon saw the conquests of the Levant, of Egypt, and of the Sassanid Empire by the newly-formed Arabic Rashidun Caliphate.[44] By Heraclius' death in 641, the empire had been severely reduced economically as well as territorially—the loss of the wealthy eastern provinces had deprived Constantinople of three-quarters of its revenue.[45]

The next seventy-five years are poorly documented.[46] Arab raids into Asia Minor began almost immediately, and the Byzantines resorted to holding fortified centres and avoiding battle at all costs; although it was invaded annually, Anatolia avoided permanent Arab occupation.[47] The outbreak of the First Fitna in 656 gave Byzantium breathing space, which it used wisely: some order was restored in the Balkans by Constans II (r. 641–668),[48] who began the administrative reorganisation known as the theme system, in which troops were allocated to defend specific provinces.[49] With the help of the recently rediscovered Greek fire, Constantine IV (r. 668–685) repelled the Arab efforts to capture Constantinople in the 670s,[50] but suffered a reversal against the Bulgars, who soon established an empire in the northern Balkans.[51] Nevertheless, he and Constans had done enough to secure the empire's position, especially as the Umayyad Caliphate was undergoing another civil war.[52]

Justinian II sought to build on the stability secured by his father Constantine but was overthrown in 695 after attempting to exact too much from his subjects; over the next twenty-two years, six more rebellions followed in an era of political instability.[53] The reconstituted caliphate sought to break Byzantium by taking Constantinople, but the newly crowned Leo III managed to repel the 717–718 siege, the first major setback of the Muslim conquests.[54]

Gold solidus of Leo III (left), and his son and heir, Constantine V (right)

Leo addressed himself with the task of reorganising and consolidating the themes in Asia Minor. In 740 a major Byzantine victory took place at the Battle of Akroinon where the Byzantines destroyed the Umayyad army.[55] Constantine V won noteworthy victories in northern Syria and also thoroughly undermined Bulgarian strength.[56] In 746, profiting from the unstable conditions in the Umayyad Caliphate, he invaded Syria and captured Germanikeia, and the Battle of Keramaia resulted in a major Byzantine naval victory over the Umayyad fleet. Coupled with military defeats on other fronts of the caliphate and internal instability, Umayyad expansion came to an end.

Macedonian dynasty and resurgence (867–1025)

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The Byzantine Empire, c. 867

The accession of Basil I to the throne in 867 marks the beginning of the Macedonian dynasty, which ruled for 150 years. This dynasty included some of the ablest emperors in Byzantium's history, and the period is one of revival. The empire moved from defending against external enemies to reconquest of territories.[57] The Macedonian dynasty was characterised by a cultural revival in spheres such as philosophy and the arts. There was a conscious effort to restore the brilliance of the period before the Slavic and subsequent Arab invasions, and the Macedonian era has been dubbed the "Golden Age" of Byzantium.[57] Although the empire was significantly smaller than during the reign of Justinian I, it had regained much strength, as the remaining territories were less geographically dispersed and more politically, economically, and culturally integrated.

Between 1021 and 1022, following years of tensions, Basil II led a series of victorious campaigns against the Kingdom of Georgia, resulting in the annexation of several Georgian provinces to the empire. Basil's successors also annexed Bagratid Armenia in 1045. Importantly, both Georgia and Armenia were significantly weakened by the Byzantine administration's policy of heavy taxation and abolishing of the levy. The weakening of Georgia and Armenia played a significant role in the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert in 1071.[58]

Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe throughout late antiquity and most of the Middle Ages until the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

Basil II is considered among the most capable Byzantine emperors and his reign as the apex of the empire in the Middle Ages. By 1025, the date of Basil II's death, the Byzantine Empire stretched from Armenia in the east to Calabria in southern Italy in the west.[59] Many successes had been achieved, ranging from the conquest of Bulgaria to the annexation of parts of Georgia and Armenia, and the reconquests of Crete, Cyprus, and the important city of Antioch. These were not temporary tactical gains but long-term reconquests.[60]

Under the Macedonian emperors Constantinople flourished, becoming the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, with a population of approximately 400,000 in the 9th and 10th centuries.[61] During this period, the Byzantine Empire employed a strong civil service staffed by competent aristocrats who oversaw the collection of taxes, domestic administration, and foreign policy. The Macedonian emperors also increased the empire's wealth by fostering trade with Western Europe, particularly through the sale of silk and metalwork.[62]

Crisis and fragmentation

The Byzantine Empire fell into a period of difficulties, caused to a large extent by the undermining of the theme system and the neglect of the military. Nikephoros II, John Tzimiskes, and Basil II shifted the emphasis of the military divisions (τάγματα, tagmata) from a reactive, defence-oriented citizen army into an army of professional career soldiers, increasingly dependent on foreign mercenaries. Mercenaries were expensive, however, and as the threat of invasion receded in the 10th century, so did the need for maintaining large garrisons and expensive fortifications.[63] Basil II left a burgeoning treasury upon his death, but he neglected to plan for his succession. None of his immediate successors had any particular military or political talent, and the imperial administration increasingly fell into the hands of the civil service. Incompetent efforts to revive the Byzantine economy resulted in severe inflation and a debased gold currency. The army was seen as both an unnecessary expense and a political threat. Several standing local units were demobilised, further augmenting the army's dependence on mercenaries, which could be retained and dismissed on an as-needed basis.[64]

The seizure of Edessa (1031) by the Byzantines under George Maniakes and the counterattack by the Seljuk Turks

At the same time, Byzantium was faced with new enemies. Its provinces in southern Italy were threatened by the Normans who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 11th century. During a period of strife between Constantinople and Rome culminating in the East-West Schism of 1054, the Normans advanced slowly but steadily into Byzantine Italy.[65] Reggio, the capital of the tagma of Calabria, was captured in 1060 by Robert Guiscard, followed by Otranto in 1068. Bari, the main Byzantine stronghold in Apulia, was besieged in August 1068 and fell in April 1071.[66]

About 1053, Constantine IX disbanded what the historian John Skylitzes calls the "Iberian Army", which consisted of 50,000 men, and it was turned into a contemporary Drungary of the Watch. Two other knowledgeable contemporaries, the former officials Michael Attaleiates and Kekaumenos, agree with Skylitzes that by demobilising these soldiers, Constantine did catastrophic harm to the empire's eastern defences. The emergency lent weight to the military aristocracy in Anatolia, who in 1068 secured the election of one of their own, Romanos Diogenes, as emperor. In the summer of 1071, Romanos undertook a massive eastern campaign to draw the Seljuks into a general engagement with the Byzantine army. At the Battle of Manzikert, Romanos suffered a surprise defeat by Sultan Alp Arslan and was captured. Alp Arslan treated him with respect and imposed no harsh terms on the Byzantines.[64] In Constantinople a coup put in power Michael Doukas, who soon faced the opposition of Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros III Botaneiates. By 1081, the Seljuks had expanded their rule over virtually the entire Anatolian plateau from Armenia in the east to Bithynia in the west, and they had founded their capital at Nicaea, just 90 kilometres (56 miles) from Constantinople.[67]

Komnenian dynasty and the Crusades

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Alexios I, founder of the Komnenos dynasty

Alexios I and the First Crusade

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The Chora Church, dating from the Komnenian period, has some of the finest Byzantine frescoes and mosaics.

The Komnenian dynasty attained power under Alexios I in 1081. From the outset of his reign, Alexios faced a formidable attack by the Normans under Guiscard and his son Bohemund of Taranto, who captured Dyrrhachium and Corfu and laid siege to Larissa in Thessaly. Guiscard's death in 1085 temporarily eased the Norman problem. The following year, the Seljuq sultan died, and the sultanate was split by internal rivalries. By his own efforts, Alexios defeated the Pechenegs, who were caught by surprise and annihilated at the Battle of Levounion on 28 April 1091.[68]

The Byzantine Empire and the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm before the First Crusade (1095–1099)

Having achieved stability in the West, Alexios could turn his attention to the severe economic difficulties and the disintegration of the empire's traditional defences.[69] However, he still did not have enough manpower to recover the lost territories in Asia Minor and to advance against the Seljuks. At the Council of Piacenza in 1095, envoys from Alexios spoke to Pope Urban II about the suffering of the Christians of the East and underscored that without help from the West, they would continue to suffer under Muslim rule.[70] Urban saw Alexios request as a dual opportunity to cement Western Europe and reunite the Eastern Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic Church under his rule.[70] On 27 November 1095, Urban called the Council of Clermont and urged all those present to take up arms under the sign of the Cross and launch an armed pilgrimage to recover Jerusalem and the East from the Muslims. The response in Western Europe was overwhelming.[68]

Alexios had anticipated help in the form of mercenary forces from the West, but he was unprepared for the immense and undisciplined force that arrived in Byzantine territory. It was no comfort to Alexios to learn that four of the eight leaders of the main body of the Crusade were Normans, among them Bohemund. Since the crusade had to pass through Constantinople, however, the emperor had some control over it. He required its leaders to swear to restore to the empire any towns or territories they might reconquer from the Turks on their way to the Holy Land. In return, he gave them guides and a military escort.[71] Alexios was able to recover a number of important cities, islands and much of western Asia Minor. The Crusaders agreed to become Alexios' vassals under the Treaty of Devol in 1108, which marked the end of the Norman threat during Alexios' reign.[72]

John II, Manuel I and the Second Crusade

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A mosaic from the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), depicting Mary and Jesus, flanked by John II Komnenos (left) and his wife Irene of Hungary (right), 12th century
Byzantine Empire in orange, c. 1180, at the end of the Komnenian period

Alexios's son John II Komnenos succeeded him in 1118 and ruled until 1143. John was a pious and dedicated emperor who was determined to undo the damage to the empire suffered at the Battle of Manzikert half a century earlier.[73] Famed for his piety and his remarkably mild and just reign, John was an exceptional example of a moral ruler at a time when cruelty was the norm.[74] For this reason, he has been called the Byzantine Marcus Aurelius. During his twenty-five-year reign, John made alliances with the Holy Roman Empire in the West and decisively defeated the Pechenegs at the Battle of Beroia.[75] He thwarted Hungarian and Serbian threats during the 1120s, and in 1130 he allied himself with German Emperor Lothair III against Norman King Roger II of Sicily.[76]

In the later part of his reign, John focused his activities on the East, personally leading numerous campaigns against the Turks in Asia Minor. His campaigns fundamentally altered the balance of power in the East, forcing the Turks onto the defensive, while restoring many towns, fortresses, and cities across the peninsula to the Byzantines. He defeated the Danishmend Emirate of Melitene and reconquered all of Cilicia, while forcing Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch, to recognise Byzantine suzerainty. In an effort to demonstrate the emperor's role as the leader of the Christian world, John marched into the Holy Land at the head of the combined forces of the empire and the Crusader states; yet despite his great vigour pressing the campaign, his hopes were disappointed by the treachery of his Crusader allies.[77] In 1142, John returned to press his claims to Antioch, but he died in the spring of 1143 following a hunting accident.

John's chosen heir was his fourth son, Manuel I Komnenos, who campaigned aggressively against his neighbours both in the west and in the east. In Palestine, Manuel allied with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and sent a large fleet to participate in a combined invasion of Fatimid Egypt. Manuel reinforced his position as overlord of the Crusader states, with his hegemony over Antioch and Jerusalem secured by agreement with Raynald, Prince of Antioch, and Amalric of Jerusalem.[78] In an effort to restore Byzantine control over the ports of southern Italy, he sent an expedition to Italy in 1155, but disputes within the coalition led to the eventual failure of the campaign. Despite this military setback, Manuel's armies successfully invaded the southern parts of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1167, defeating the Hungarians at the Battle of Sirmium. By 1168, nearly the whole of the eastern Adriatic coast lay in Manuel's hands.[79] Manuel made several alliances with the pope and Western Christian kingdoms, and he successfully handled the passage of the crusaders through his empire.[80]

In the East, Manuel suffered a major defeat in 1176 at the Battle of Myriokephalon against the Turks. Yet the losses were quickly recovered, and in the following year Manuel's forces inflicted a defeat upon a force of "picked Turks".[81] The Byzantine commander John Vatatzes, who destroyed the Turkish invaders at the Battle of Hyelion and Leimocheir, brought troops from the capital and was able to gather an army along the way, a sign that the Byzantine army remained strong and that the defensive programme of western Asia Minor was still successful.[82] John and Manuel pursued active military policies, and both deployed considerable resources on sieges and city defences; aggressive fortification policies were at the heart of their imperial military policies.[83] Despite the defeat at Myriokephalon, the policies of Alexios, John and Manuel resulted in vast territorial gains, increased frontier stability in Asia Minor, and secured the stabilisation of the empire's European frontiers. From c. 1081 to c. 1180, the Komnenian army assured the empire's security, enabling Byzantine civilisation to flourish.[84]

This allowed the Western provinces to achieve an economic revival that continued until the close of the century. It has been argued that Byzantium under the Komnenian rule was more prosperous than at any time since the Persian invasions of the 7th century. During the 12th century, population levels rose and extensive tracts of new agricultural land were brought into production. Archaeological evidence from both Europe and Asia Minor shows a considerable increase in the size of urban settlements, together with a notable upsurge in new towns. Trade was also flourishing; the Venetians, the Genoese and others opened up the ports of the Aegean to commerce, shipping goods from the Crusader states and Fatimid Egypt to the west and trading with the empire via Constantinople.[85]

Decline and disintegration

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Angelid dynasty

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Byzantium in the late Angeloi period

Manuel's death on 24 September 1180 left his 11-year-old son Alexios II Komnenos on the throne. Alexios was highly incompetent in the office, and with his mother Maria of Antioch's Frankish background, his regency was unpopular.[86] Eventually, Andronikos I Komnenos, a grandson of Alexios I, overthrew Alexios II in a violent coup d'état.[87] After eliminating his potential rivals, he had himself crowned as co-emperor in September 1183. He eliminated Alexios II and took his 12-year-old wife Agnes of France for himself.[87]

Andronikos began his reign well; in particular, the measures he took to reform the government of the empire have been praised by historians. According to George Ostrogorsky, Andronikos was determined to root out corruption: under his rule, the sale of offices ceased; selection was based on merit, rather than favouritism; officials were paid an adequate salary to reduce the temptation of bribery. In the provinces, Andronikos's reforms produced a speedy and marked improvement.[88] The aristocrats were infuriated against him, and to make matters worse, Andronikos seemed to have become increasingly unbalanced; executions and violence became increasingly common, and his reign turned into a reign of terror.[89] Andronikos seemed almost to seek the extermination of the aristocracy as a whole. The struggle against the aristocracy turned into wholesale slaughter, while the emperor resorted to ever more ruthless measures to shore up his regime.[88]

Despite his military background, Andronikos failed to deal with Isaac Komnenos, Béla III of Hungary who reincorporated Croatian territories into Hungary, and Stephen Nemanja of Serbia who declared his independence from the Byzantine Empire. Yet, none of these troubles compared to William II of Sicily's invasion force of 300 ships and 80,000 men, arriving in 1185 and sacking Thessalonica.[90] Andronikos mobilised a small fleet of 100 ships to defend the capital, but other than that he was indifferent to the populace. He was finally overthrown when Isaac II Angelos, surviving an imperial assassination attempt, seized power with the aid of the people and had Andronikos killed.[91]

The reign of Isaac II, and more so that of his brother Alexios III, saw the collapse of what remained of the centralised machinery of Byzantine government and defence. Although the Normans were driven out of Greece, in 1186 the Vlachs and Bulgars began a rebellion that led to the formation of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The internal policy of the Angeloi was characterised by the squandering of the public treasure and fiscal maladministration. Imperial authority was severely weakened, and the growing power vacuum at the centre of the empire encouraged fragmentation. There is evidence that some Komnenian heirs had set up a semi-independent state in Trebizond before 1204.[92] According to Alexander Vasiliev, "the dynasty of the Angeloi, Greek in its origin, ... accelerated the ruin of the Empire, already weakened without and disunited within."[93]

Fourth Crusade and aftermath

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In 1198, Pope Innocent III broached the subject of a new crusade through legates and encyclical letters.[94] The stated intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt, the centre of Muslim power in the Levant. The Crusader army arrived at Venice in the summer of 1202 and hired the Venetian fleet to transport them to Egypt. As a payment to the Venetians, they captured the (Christian) port of Zara in Dalmatia (the vassal city of Venice, which had rebelled and placed itself under Hungary's protection in 1186).[95] Shortly afterward, Alexios IV Angelos, son of the deposed and blinded Emperor Isaac II, made contact with the Crusaders. Alexios offered to reunite the Byzantine church with Rome, pay the Crusaders 200,000 silver marks, join the crusade, and provide all the supplies they needed to reach Egypt.[96]

The partition of the empire following the Fourth Crusade, c. 1204

The crusaders arrived at Constantinople in the summer of 1203 and quickly attacked, starting a major fire that damaged large parts of the city, and briefly seized control. Alexios III fled from the capital, and Alexios Angelos was elevated to the throne as Alexios IV along with his blind father Isaac. Alexios IV and Isaac II were unable to keep their promises and were deposed by Alexios V. The crusaders again took the city on 13 April 1204, and Constantinople was subjected to pillage and massacre by the rank and file for three days. Many priceless icons, relics and other objects later turned up in Western Europe, a large number in Venice. According to chronicler Niketas Choniates, a prostitute was even set up on the patriarchal throne.[97] When order had been restored, the crusaders and the Venetians proceeded to implement their agreement; Baldwin of Flanders was elected emperor of a new Latin Empire, and the Venetian Thomas Morosini was chosen as patriarch. The lands divided up among the leaders included most of the former Byzantine possessions.[98] Although Venice was more interested in commerce than conquering territory, it took key areas of Constantinople, and the Doge took the title of "Lord of a Quarter and Half a Quarter of the Roman Empire".[99]

After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by Latin crusaders, two Byzantine successor states were established: the Empire of Nicaea and the Despotate of Epirus. A third, the Empire of Trebizond, was created after Alexios Komnenos, commanding the Georgian expedition in Chaldia[100] a few weeks before the sack of Constantinople, found himself de facto emperor and established himself in Trebizond. Of the three successor states, Epirus and Nicaea stood the best chance of reclaiming Constantinople. The Nicaean Empire struggled to survive the next few decades, however, and by the mid-13th century it had lost much of southern Anatolia.[101] The weakening of the Sultanate of Rûm following the Mongol invasion in 1242–1243 allowed many beyliks and ghazis to set up their own principalities in Anatolia, weakening the Byzantine hold on Asia Minor.[102] In time, one of the Beys, Osman I, created the Ottoman Empire that would eventually conquer Constantinople. However, the Mongol invasion also gave Nicaea a temporary respite from Seljuk attacks, allowing it to concentrate on the Latin Empire to its north.

The Byzantine Empire, c. 1263

The Empire of Nicaea, founded by the Laskarid dynasty, managed to recapture Constantinople in 1261 and defeat Epirus. This led to a short-lived revival of Byzantine fortunes under Michael VIII Palaiologos, but the war-ravaged empire was ill-equipped to deal with the enemies that surrounded it. To maintain his campaigns against the Latins, Michael pulled troops from Asia Minor and levied crippling taxes on the peasantry, causing much resentment.[103] Massive construction projects were completed in Constantinople to repair the damage of the Fourth Crusade, but none of these initiatives were of any comfort to the farmers in Asia Minor suffering raids from Muslim ghazis.[104]

Rather than holding on to his possessions in Asia Minor, Michael chose to expand the empire, gaining only short-term success. To avoid another sacking of the capital by the Latins, he forced the Church to submit to Rome, again a temporary solution for which the peasantry hated Michael and Constantinople.[104] The efforts of Andronikos II and later his grandson Andronikos III marked Byzantium's last genuine attempts to restoring the glory of the empire. However, the use of mercenaries by Andronikos II often backfired, with the Catalan Company ravaging the countryside and increasing resentment towards Constantinople.[105]


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The situation became worse for Byzantium during the civil wars after Andronikos III died. A six-year-long civil war devastated the empire, allowing the Serbian ruler Stefan Dušan to overrun most of the empire's remaining territory and establish a Serbian Empire. In 1354, an earthquake at Gallipoli devastated the fort, allowing the Ottomans (who were hired as mercenaries during the civil war by John VI Kantakouzenos) to establish themselves in Europe.[106][107] By the time the Byzantine civil wars had ended, the Ottomans had defeated the Serbians and subjugated them as vassals. Following the Battle of Kosovo, much of the Balkans became dominated by the Ottomans.[108]

Constantinople by this stage was underpopulated and dilapidated. The population of the city had collapsed so severely that it was now little more than a cluster of villages separated by fields. On 2 April 1453, Sultan Mehmed's army of 80,000 men and large numbers of irregulars laid siege to the city.[109] Despite a desperate last-ditch defence of the city by the massively outnumbered Christian forces (c. 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreign),[110] Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans after a two-month siege on 29 May 1453. The final Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was last seen casting off his imperial regalia and throwing himself into hand-to-hand combat after the walls of the city were taken.[111]

Geography and demography

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At its peak, the population reached 26m people at 540 CE and 3,400,000 km2. By contrast by the 14th century, it would drop to 2m people and 420,000 km2.


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Transition into an Eastern Christian empire

The granting of citizenship across the entire Empire in 212 is considered a turning point by some modern historians. Roman citizenship was an innovation of the Roman state, where people with no direct territorial claim to the city of Rome could have it.[112] However, the decision in 212 would affect two-thirds of the Empire's population, fundamentally changing its nature.[113] For example, in 249, Decius required all subjects to make a public sacrifice to the gods for the Empire, which following 212 was unprecedented in scale and marked the progression towards uniform religious practice.[114]

Diocletian's constitutional reforms from 284 ended the facade of dyarchy created by the reforms by Augustus that created the principate, seen as forming a new state.[115] The state would begin to intervene more in the private matters of families, such as with land and slavery.[116] Constantine's support for Christianity and moving the imperial seat east changed the power structure permanently: the formation of the Constantinople Senate provided the East political independence.[115] Theodosius issued a series of edicts essentially banning pagan religion: pagan sacrifices, ceremonies, and access to pagan places of worship were restricted.[117] The last Olympic Games are believed to have been held in 393.[118]

By the second century CE, Hellenic culture had heavily impacted Roman identity.[119] Additionally, the theological debates in the Christian Church increased the importance of the Greek language, in turn making it highly dependent on Hellenic thought.[120] It enabled philosophy like Neoplatonism to loom large on Christian theology.[121] Anthony Kaldellis views Christianity as bringing no economic, social, or political changes to the state other than being more deeply integrated into it.[122]


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There were 3 million enslaved people (or 15% of the population) around the time of the Diocletian reforms.[123] Youval Rotman calls the changes to slavery during this period, as different degrees of unfreedom.[124] Previous slave roles became high-demand free market professions (like tutors), and the state encouraged the coloni, tenants bound to the land, as a new legal category between free and slave.[125] In 294 the enslavement of children was forbidden; Honorius (r.  393–423) would begin to free enslaved people that were battle captives, and later emperors would free the slaves of conquered people.[126][127] Christianity as an institution had no direct impact, but state policies prohibited enslaved Christians, had limits on trading them, and made it a bishop's duty to ransom Christians.[128] Slavery ultimately would persist due to a steady source of non-Christians, though with stable prices.[129][130]


Agriculture was the main basis of taxation and the state sought to bind everyone to land for productivity[131] The emperor held the largest landownership, with senators after that; Local city councillors were typically the richest in their respective areas, though there would be a noticeable disparity between smaller and larger towns.[132] In an economic sense, a middle class existed, comprising merchants, smaller landowners, and artisans, yet it never coalesced as a distinct class.[125] Most lands consisted of small and medium-sized lots, with family farms serving as the primary source of agriculture.[133] The status of the Coloni once referred to as proto-serfs but actually, free citizens remains a subject of historical debate.[134] Slaves would have been rare after the 7th century, primarily urban, with their socio-economic status tied principally to their masters.[135]

In 741, marriage had become a Christian institution, and no longer a private contract.[136] Monogamy had been a Roman definition of marriage, but Christianity introduced a prohibition on divorce and sexual relations outside of marriage, bringing a change in power relations with slavery.[137] Marriage was considered an institution to sustain the population, transfer property rights, support the elderly family, and the empress Theodora had said it was needed to restrict sexual hedonism.[138] Women usually married at ages 15–20, and were used as a way to connect men and create economic benefit among families.[139] The societal norm dictated that women should bear up to six children, yet only 2–3 were expected to survive.[140] Divorce could be done by mutual consent but would be restricted over time, such as only if joining a convent.[141]

Inheritance rights were well developed, including for all women.[142] It may have been what prevented the emergence of large properties and a hereditary nobility capable of intimidating the state.[135] The prevalence of widows (estimated at 20%) meant that women often controlled family assets as heads of households and businesses, contributing to the rise of some empresses to power.[143] Women were major taxpayers, landowners, and petitioners to the imperial court seeking resolution for primarily property-related disputes.[144]

Education maintained a standard and a continuation from the Hellenistic and Ancient Roman eras, and right through the Byzantine era.[145] Education was voluntary but required financial means to attend.[146] There is weak evidence that women were catered for, though we know that there was at least a school for girls in the capital.[147] It's more likely that boys and girls, whose families could afford it, had private tutoring at home.[148]


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While women shared the same socio-economic status as men, they faced legal discrimination and had limitations in economic opportunities and vocations.[149] Prohibited from serving as soldiers or holding political office, and restricted from serving as deaconesses in the Church from the 7th century (until a full ban likely in the 11th century), women most likely were assigned household responsibilities that were labour-intensive.[150] They worked in professions, such as in the food and textile industry, as medical staff, in public baths, had a heavy presence in retail, and were practicing members of artisan guilds.[151] They also worked in disreputable occupations: entertainers, tavern keepers, and prostitutes, allegedly where some saints and empresses originated from[152] (Prostitution was widespread, and attempts were made to limit it, especially during Justinian's reign under the influence of Theodora.)[153]

Women participated in public life, engaging in social events such as dancing at festivals, processions, protests and attending the Hippodrome.[135] They played an important role in resisting imperial iconastic policy.[154] Women's rights would not be better in comparative societies, nor Western Europe or America until the 19th century.[155]


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Left: The Mudil Psalter, the oldest complete psalter in the Coptic language (Coptic Museum, Egypt, Coptic Cairo)
Right: The Joshua Roll, a 10th-century illuminated Greek manuscript possibly made in Constantinople (Vatican Library, Rome)
Distribution of Greek dialects in Anatolia in the late Byzantine Empire through to 1923. Demotic in yellow. Pontic in orange. Cappadocian in green. (Green dots indicate Cappadocian Greek-speaking villages in 1910.[156])

There was never an official language but Latin and Greek were the main languages.[157] During the principate, knowledge of Greek had been useful to pass as an educated noble, and knowledge of Latin was useful for a career in the military, government, or law.[158] Latin had experienced a period of spreading from the second century BCE, and especially in the western provinces, but not as much in the eastern provinces.[159] In the east, Greek was the dominant language, a legacy of the Hellenistic period.[160] Greek was also the language of the Christian Church and trade.[161] Most of the emperors were bilingual but had a preference for Latin in the public sphere for political reasons, a practice that first started during the Punic Wars.[162]

Following Diocletian's reforms in the 3rd century CE, there was a decline in the knowledge of Greek in the West, with Latin reasserted as the language of power in the East.[163] Greek's influence grew however, such as when Arcadius in 397 allowed judges to issue decisions in Greek, Theodosius II in 439 expanded its use in legal procedures, 448 the first law, and the 460s when Leo I legislated in it.[164][165] Justinian I's Corpus Juris Civilis, a compilation of mostly Roman jurists, was written almost entirely in Latin. However, the laws issued after 534, with Justinian's Novellae Constitutiones, were in Greek and Latin which marks when the government switched officially.[166] Greek for a time became diglossic with the spoken language, known as Koine (later, Demotic Greek), used alongside an older written form (Attic Greek) until Koine won out as the spoken and written standard.[167]

Latin had begun to evolve in the 4th century. It later fragmented into the incipient romance languages in the 8th century CE, following the collapse of the West with the Muslim invasions that broke the connection between speakers.[168][169] During the reign of Justinian, Latin disappeared in the east though it may have lingered in the military until Heraclius.[170][171] Contact with Western Europe in the 10th century revived Latin studies, and by the 11th century, knowledge of Latin was no longer unusual at Constantinople.[172]

Many other languages are attested in the empire, not just in its cosmopolitan capital but also at its frontiers.[173] They include Syriac, Coptic, Slavonic, Armenian, Georgian, Illyrian, Thracian, and Celtic who typically were the lower strata of the population and illiterate, the vast majority.[174] It was a multi-lingual state, but Greek bound everyone and the forces of assimilation would lead to less diversity of languages over time.[175]

Government and military

Map of Byzantine Empire showing the themes in circa 750
The themes, c. 750
Map of Byzantine Empire showing the themes in circa 950
The themes, c. 950

Central government

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Largely based on Emperor Diocletian's Dominate reforms in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, the monarch was the sole and absolute ruler, and his power was regarded as having divine origin.[176][177] From Justinian I on, the emperor was considered nomos empsychos, the "living law", both lawgiver and administrator.[178] The senate had ceased to have real political and legislative authority but remained as an honorary council with titular members, resembling an emergency or ceremonial meeting made up of powerful Constantinopolitan aristocrats, very often friends and relatives of the emperor. By the end of the 8th century, a civil administration focused on the court was formed as part of a large-scale consolidation of power in the capital (the rise to pre-eminence of the position of sakellarios is related to this change).[179] As a result of the different Orthodox and Hellenistic political philosophies, from Justinian onwards, an administrative simplification was given way for the emperor's easier management of the state as the sole administrator and lawgiver of the sacred Oikoumene.[180] Definitive powers began to be attached around single entities who acted as viceroys, starting with the exarchs and their Justinianic-era predecessors stratelates who shared the extraordinary powers of the emperor in their respective districts and only answered to him, they also being appointed by the sovereign directly.

The most important administrative reform, which probably started in the mid-7th century, was the creation of themes, where civil and military administration were embodied in a single person, the strategos, who, as the emperor's viceroy, shared his extraordinary powers in their respective "thémata", they too being also appointed by the emperor alone. The void left by the disappearance of the old semi-autonomous civic institutions was filled by the theme system, which entailed dividing Asia Minor into "provinces" occupied by distinct armies that assumed civil authority and answered directly to the imperial administration. This system may have had its roots in ad hoc measures taken by Heraclius, but over the course of the 7th century it developed into an entirely new system of imperial governance.[181][182][183] The massive cultural and institutional restructuring of the empire consequent on the loss of territory in the 7th century has been said to have caused a decisive break in east Mediterranean Romanness, and that the Byzantine state is subsequently best understood as another successor state rather than a real continuation of the Roman Empire.[184]

Despite the occasionally derogatory use of the terms "Byzantine" and "Byzantinism", the Byzantine bureaucracy had a distinct ability to adapt to the empire's changing situations. The elaborate system of titulature and precedence gave the court prestige and influence. Officials were arranged in strict order around the emperor and depended upon the royal will for their ranks. There were also actual administrative jobs, but authority could be vested in individuals rather than offices.[185]

In the 8th and 9th centuries, civil service constituted the clearest path to aristocratic status. However, beginning in the 9th century, the civil aristocracy was rivaled by an aristocracy of nobility. According to some studies of the Byzantine government, 11th-century politics were dominated by competition between the civil and the military aristocracy. During this period, Alexios I undertook important administrative reforms, including the creation of new courtly dignities and offices.[186]


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The army started with the same basic organization as the classical Roman army, but between the 5th and 7th centuries, the cavalry became more important, the field armies took on more tasks, and the border armies were transformed into local militias.

Likewise, the navy was a direct continuation of its classical Roman predecessor, but played a far greater role in the defence and survival of the state than its earlier iteration. While the fleets of the Roman Empire faced few great naval threats, operating as a policing force vastly inferior in power and prestige to the army, command of the sea became vital to the very existence of the state, which has led several historians to call it a "maritime empire."


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The embassy of John the Grammarian in 829, between the emperor Theophilos and the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mun

After the fall of Rome, the key challenge to the empire was maintaining relations with its neighbours. When these nations set about forging formal political institutions, they were often modeled after Constantinople. Byzantine diplomacy managed to draw its neighbours into a network of international and inter-state relations.[187] This network revolved around treaty-making and included the welcoming of the new ruler into the family of kings and the assimilation of Byzantine social attitudes, values, and institutions.[188] Whereas classical writers are fond of making ethical and legal distinctions between peace and war, Byzantines regarded diplomacy as a form of war by other means. For example, a Bulgarian threat could be countered by providing money to the Kievan Rus'.[189]

Italian sketch of Emperor John VIII during his visit in Ferrara and Florence in 1438

Diplomacy was understood to have an intelligence-gathering function on top of its pure political function. The Bureau of Barbarians in Constantinople handled matters of protocol and record-keeping for any issues related to the "barbarians", and thus had, perhaps, a basic intelligence function itself.[190] John B. Bury believes that the office exercised supervision over all foreigners visiting Constantinople, and that they were under the supervision of the Logothetes tou dromou.[191] While on the surface a protocol office—its main duty was to ensure foreign envoys were properly cared for and received sufficient state funds for their maintenance, and it kept all the official translators—it probably had a security function as well.[192]

Byzantines availed themselves of several diplomatic practices. For example, embassies to the capital often stayed on for years. A member of other royal houses would routinely be requested to stay on in Constantinople as a potential hostage as well as a useful pawn in case political conditions changed. Another key practice was to overwhelm visitors with sumptuous displays.[187] According to Dimitri Obolensky, the preservation of the ancient civilisation in Europe could be accredited to the skill and resourcefulness of Byzantine diplomacy, which remains one of Byzantium's lasting contributions to the history of Europe.[193]


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In 438, the Codex Theodosianus, named after Theodosius II, codified Byzantine law. It went into force in the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire as well as in the Western Roman Empire. It summarised the laws and gave direction on interpretation. In 529, Justinian appointed a commission to revise and codify the law into the "Corpus Juris Civilis", or the Justinian Code. In 534, the Corpus was updated and, along with the enactments promulgated by Justinian after 534, formed the system of law used for most of the rest of the Byzantine era.[194] The Corpus forms the basis of civil law of many modern states.[195] It was Tribonian, a notable jurist, who supervised the Corpus Juris Civilis. Justinian's reforms had a clear effect on the evolution of jurisprudence, with his Corpus becoming the basis for revived Roman law in the Western world, while Leo III's Ecloga influenced the formation of legal institutions in the Slavic world.[196]

In the 10th century, Leo VI achieved the complete codification of Byzantine law in Greek. This monumental work of 60 volumes became the foundation of all subsequent Byzantine law and is still studied today.[197] Leo also reformed the administration of the empire, redrawing the borders of the administrative subdivisions (the themata, or "themes") and tidying up the system of ranks and privileges, as well as regulating the behaviour of the various trade guilds in Constantinople. Leo's reform did much to reduce the previous fragmentation of the empire, which henceforth had one centre of power, Constantinople.[198] The increasing military success of the empire greatly enriched and gave the provincial nobility more power over the peasantry, who were essentially reduced to a state of serfdom.[199]

Flags and insignia

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The double-headed eagle, a common Imperial symbol

For most of its history, the Byzantine Empire did not know or use heraldry in the West European sense. Various emblems (Greek: σημεία, sēmeia; sing. σημείον, sēmeion) were used on official occasions and for military purposes, such as banners or shields displaying various motifs such as the cross or the labarum. The use of the cross and images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints is also attested on seals of officials, but these were personal rather than family emblems.[200]


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Golden Solidus of Justinian I (527–565) excavated in India probably in the south, an example of Indo-Roman trade during the period

The Byzantine economy was among the most advanced in Europe and the Mediterranean for many centuries. Europe, in particular, could not match Byzantine economic strength until late in the Middle Ages. Constantinople operated as a prime hub in a trading network that at various times extended across nearly all of Eurasia and North Africa, in particular as the primary western terminus of the famous Silk Road. Until the first half of the 6th century and in sharp contrast with the decaying West, the Byzantine economy was flourishing and resilient.[201]

The Plague of Justinian and the Arab conquests represented a substantial reversal of fortunes contributing to a period of stagnation and decline. Isaurian reforms and Constantine V's repopulation, public works and tax measures marked the beginning of a revival that continued until 1204, despite territorial contraction.[202] From the 10th century until the end of the 12th, the Byzantine Empire projected an image of luxury and travellers were impressed by the wealth accumulated in the capital.[203]

The Fourth Crusade resulted in the disruption of Byzantine manufacturing and the commercial dominance of the Western Europeans in the eastern Mediterranean, events that amounted to an economic catastrophe for the empire.[203] The Palaiologoi tried to revive the economy, but the late Byzantine state did not gain full control of either the foreign or domestic economic forces. Gradually, Constantinople also lost its influence on the modalities of trade and the price mechanisms, and its control over the outflow of precious metals and, according to some scholars, even over the minting of coins.[204]

Governmental intervention in the economy

The government attempted to exercise formal control over interest rates and set the parameters for the activity of the guilds and corporations, in which it had a special interest. The emperor and his officials intervened at times of crisis to ensure the provisioning of the capital, and to keep down the price of cereals. Finally, the government often collected part of the surplus through taxation, and put it back into circulation, through redistribution in the form of salaries to state officials, or in the form of investment in public works.[205]


One of the economic foundations of Byzantium was trade, fostered by the maritime character of the empire. Textiles must have been by far the most important item of export; silks were certainly imported into Egypt and appeared also in Bulgaria, and the West.[206] The state strictly controlled internal and international trade, and retained the monopoly of issuing coinage, maintaining a durable and flexible monetary system adaptable to trade needs.[205]


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Influences from Byzantine architecture, particularly in religious buildings, can be found in diverse regions from Egypt and Arabia to Russia and Romania. Byzantine architecture is known for the use of domes, and pendentive architecture was invented in the Byzantine Empire. In contrast to the basilica plans favored in medieval Western European churches, Byzantine churches usually had more centralized ground plans, such as the cross-in-square plan deployed in many Middle Byzantine churches.[207] It also often featured marble columns, coffered ceilings and sumptuous decoration, including the extensive use of mosaics with golden backgrounds. Byzantine architects used marble mostly as interior cladding, in contrast to the structural roles it had for the Ancient Greeks. They used mostly stone and brick, and also thin alabaster sheets for windows. Mosaics were used to cover brick walls and any other surface where fresco would not resist. Good examples of mosaics from the proto-Byzantine era are in Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki (Greece), the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo and the Basilica of San Vitale, both in Ravenna (Italy), and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Christian liturgies were held in the interior of the churches, the exterior usually having little to no ornamentation.[208][209]

Daily life


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Byzantine culture was initially the same as Late Greco-Roman, but over the following millennium of the empire's existence, it slowly changed into something more similar to modern Balkan and Anatolian culture. The cuisine still relied heavily on the Greco-Roman fish-sauce condiment garos, but it also contained foods still familiar today, such as the cured meat pastirma (known as "paston" in Byzantine Greek),[213][214][215] baklava (known as koptoplakous κοπτοπλακοῦς),[216] tiropita (known as plakountas tetyromenous or tyritas plakountas),[217] and the famed medieval sweet wines (Malvasia from Monemvasia, Commandaria and the eponymous Rumney wine). Retsina, wine flavoured with pine resin, was also drunk, as it still is in Greece today, producing similar reactions from unfamiliar visitors; "To add to our calamity the Greek wine, on account of being mixed with pitch, resin, and plaster was to us undrinkable", complained Liutprand of Cremona, who was the ambassador sent to Constantinople in 968 by the German Holy Roman Emperor Otto I.[218] The garos fish sauce condiment was also not much appreciated by the unaccustomed; Liutprand of Cremona described being served food covered in an "exceedingly bad fish liquor."[218] The Byzantines also used a soy sauce-like condiment, murri, a fermented barley sauce, which, like soy sauce, provided umami flavouring to their dishes.[219][220]


A game of τάβλι (tabula) played by Byzantine emperor Zeno in 480 and recorded by Agathias in c. 530 because of a very unlucky dice throw for Zeno (red), as he threw 2, 5 and 6 and was forced to leave eight pieces alone.[221]

Byzantines were avid players of tavli (Byzantine Greek: τάβλη), a game known in English as backgammon, which is still popular in former Byzantine realms and still known by the name tavli in Greece.[221] Byzantine nobles were devoted to horsemanship, particularly tzykanion, now known as polo. The game came from Sassanid Persia, and a Tzykanisterion (stadium for playing the game) was built by Theodosius II inside the Great Palace of Constantinople. Emperor Basil I excelled at it; Emperor Alexander died from exhaustion while playing, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos was injured while playing with Tatikios, and John I of Trebizond died from a fatal injury during a game.[222][223] Aside from Constantinople and Trebizond, other Byzantine cities also featured tzykanisteria, most notably Sparta, Ephesus, and Athens, an indication of a thriving urban aristocracy.[224] The game was introduced to the West by crusaders, who developed a taste for it particularly during the pro-Western reign of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Chariot races were popular and held at hippodromes across the empire. There were initially four major factions in chariot racing, differentiated by the colour of the uniform in which they competed; the colours were also worn by their supporters. These were the Blues (Veneti), the Greens (Prasini), the Reds (Russati), and the Whites (Albati), although by the Byzantine era, the only teams with any influence were the Blues and Greens. Emperor Justinian I was a supporter of the Blues.


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In the early period, the traditional Roman toga was still used as formal or official dress. By Justinian's reign, this had been replaced by the tunica, or long chiton, for all people, over which the upper classes wore other garments, like a dalmatica (dalmatic), a heavier and shorter type of tunica. Colour and pattern were heavily employed, and there was production of richly patterned cloth, especially Byzantine silk, woven and embroidered for the upper classes, and resist-dyed and printed for the lower segments of society.



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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Surviving Byzantine art is mostly religious and with exceptions at certain periods is highly conventionalised, following traditional models that translate carefully controlled church theology into artistic terms. Painting in fresco, illuminated manuscripts and on wood panels and, especially in earlier periods, mosaics were the main media, and figurative sculpture was very rare except for small carved ivories. Manuscript painting preserved to the end some of the classical realist tradition that was missing in larger works.[225] Byzantine art was highly prestigious and sought-after in Western Europe, where it maintained a continuous influence on medieval art until near the end of the period. This was especially so in Italy, where Byzantine styles persisted in modified form through the 12th century, and became formative influences on Italian Renaissance art. However few incoming influences affected the Byzantine style. With the expansion of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Byzantine forms and styles spread throughout the Orthodox world and beyond.[226]


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In Byzantine literature, three different cultural elements are recognised: the Greek, the Christian, and the Oriental. Byzantine literature is often classified into five groups: historians and annalists; encyclopaedists (Patriarch Photios, Michael Psellus, and Michael Choniates are regarded as the greatest encyclopaedists of Byzantium) and essayists; writers of secular poetry (the only genuine heroic epic of the Byzantines is the Digenis Acritas); ecclesiastical and theological literature; and popular poetry.[227] Of the 2,000 to 3,000 volumes of Byzantine literature that survive, only 330 consist of secular poetry, history, science and pseudo-science.[227] While the most flourishing period of the secular literature of Byzantium runs from the 9th to the 12th century, its religious literature (sermons, liturgical books and poetry, theology, devotional treatises, etc.) developed much earlier with Romanos the Melodist being its most prominent representative.[228]


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Late 4th century "Mosaic of the Musicians" with organ, aulos, and lyre from a Byzantine villa in Maryamin, Syria[229]

The ecclesiastical forms of Byzantine music—composed to Greek texts as ceremonial, festival, or church music[230]—are today the most well-known forms. Ecclesiastical chants were a fundamental part of this genre. Greek and foreign historians agree that the ecclesiastical tones and in general the whole system of Byzantine music is closely related to the ancient Greek system.[231] It remains the oldest genre of extant music, of which the manner of performance and (with increasing accuracy from the 5th century onwards) the names of the composers, and sometimes the particulars of each musical work's circumstances, are known.

Earliest known depiction of a bowed lyra, from a Byzantine ivory casket (900–1100) (Museo Nazionale, Florence)

The 9th-century Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh, in his lexicographical discussion of instruments, cited the lyra (lūrā) as the typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe).[232] The first of these, the early bowed stringed instrument known as the Byzantine lyra, came to be called the lira da braccio,[233] in Venice, where it is considered by many to have been the predecessor of the contemporary violin, which later flourished there.[234] The bowed "lyra" is still played in former Byzantine regions, where it is known as the Politiki lyra (lit. lyra of the City, i.e. Constantinople) in Greece, the Calabrian lira in southern Italy, and the lijerica in Dalmatia. The water organ originated in the Hellenistic world and was used in the Hippodrome during races.[235][236] A pipe organ with "great leaden pipes" was sent by Emperor Constantine V to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks in 757. Pepin's son Charlemagne requested a similar organ for his chapel in Aachen in 812, beginning its establishment in Western church music.[236] The aulos was a double-reeded woodwind like the modern oboe or Armenian duduk. Other forms include the plagiaulos (πλαγίαυλος, from πλάγιος "sideways"), which resembled the flute,[237] and the askaulos (ἀσκός askoswineskin), a bagpipe.[238] Bagpipes, also known as dankiyo (from ancient Greek: angion (Τὸ ἀγγεῖον) "the container"), had been played even in Roman times and continued to be played throughout the empire's former realms through to the present. (See Balkan Gaida, Greek Tsampouna, Pontic Tulum, Cretan Askomandoura, Armenian Parkapzuk, and Romanian Cimpoi.) The modern descendant of the aulos is the Greek Zourna. Other instruments used in Byzantine music were the Kanonaki, Oud, Laouto, Santouri, Tambouras, Seistron (defi tambourine), Toubeleki, and Daouli. Some claim that the Lavta may have been invented by the Byzantines before the arrival of the Turks.[citation needed]

12th-century renaissance

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The Lamentation of Christ (1164), a fresco from the church of Saint Panteleimon in Nerezi, North Macedonia, considered a superb example of 12th-century Komnenian art

During the 12th century, there was a revival in mosaic, and regional schools of architecture began producing many distinctive styles that drew on a range of cultural influences.[239] In this period, the Byzantines provided their model of early humanism as a renaissance of interest in classical authors. In Eustathius of Thessalonica, Byzantine humanism found its most characteristic expression.[240] In philosophy, there was a resurgence of classical learning not seen since the 7th century, characterised by a significant increase in the publication of commentaries on classical works.[241] Besides, the first transmission of classical Greek knowledge to the West occurred during the Komnenian period.[242] In terms of prosperity and cultural life, the Komnenian period was one of the peaks in Byzantine history,[243] and Constantinople remained the leading city of the Christian world in size, wealth, and culture.[244] There was a renewed interest in classical Greek philosophy, as well as an increase in literary output in vernacular Greek.[241] Byzantine art and literature held a pre-eminent place in Europe, and the cultural impact of Byzantine art on the West during this period was enormous and of long-lasting significance.[242]

Science and medicine

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Interior of the Hagia Sophia, the patriarchal basilica in Constantinople designed 537 by Isidore of Miletus, the first compiler of Archimedes' various works. The influence of Archimedes' principles of solid geometry is evident.

Byzantine science played an important and crucial role in the transmission of classical knowledge to the Islamic world and to Renaissance Italy.[245][246] Many of the most distinguished classical scholars held high office in the Eastern Orthodox Church.[247]

The Imperial University of Constantinople, sometimes known as the University of the Palace Hall of Magnaura (Greek: Πανδιδακτήριον τῆς Μαγναύρας), was an Eastern Roman educational institution that could trace its corporate origins to AD 425, when Emperor Theodosius II founded the Pandidakterion (Medieval Greek: Πανδιδακτήριον ).[248] The Pandidakterion was refounded in 1046[249] by Constantine IX Monomachos who created the Departments of Law (Διδασκαλεῖον τῶν Νόμων) and Philosophy (Γυμνάσιον).[250] At the time various economic schools, colleges, polytechnics, libraries and fine arts academies also operated in the city of Constantinople. A few scholars have gone so far as to call the Pandidakterion the first "university" in the world.[251]

The writings of classical antiquity were cultivated and preserved in Byzantium. Therefore, Byzantine science was in every period closely connected with ancient philosophy, and metaphysics.[252] In the field of engineering Isidore of Miletus, the Greek mathematician and architect of the Hagia Sophia, produced the first compilation of Archimedes' works c. 530, and it is through this manuscript tradition, kept alive by the school of mathematics and engineering founded c. 850 during the "Byzantine Renaissance" by Leo the Mathematician, that such works are known today (see Archimedes Palimpsest).[253]

Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponus was the first to question Aristotelian physics. Unlike Aristotle, who based his physics on verbal argument, Philoponus relied on observation. Philoponus' criticism of Aristotelian principles of physics was an inspiration for Galileo Galilei's refutation of Aristotelian physics during the Scientific Revolution many centuries later, as Galileo cites Philoponus substantially in his works.[254][255]

The Byzantines pioneered the concept of the hospital as an institution offering medical care and the possibility of a cure for the patients, as a reflection of the ideals of Christian charity, rather than merely a place to die.[256]

Ceramic grenades that were filled with Greek fire, surrounded by caltrops, 10th–12th century, National Historical Museum, Athens, Greece

Greek fire, an incendiary weapon which could even burn on water, is attributed to the Byzantines. It played a crucial role in the empire's victory over the Umayyad Caliphate during the siege of Constantinople (717–718).[257] The discovery is attributed to Callinicus of Heliopolis from Syria who fled during the Arab conquest of Syria. However, it has also been argued that no single person invented Greek fire, but rather, that it was "invented by the chemists in Constantinople who had inherited the discoveries of the Alexandrian chemical school...".[258] In the final century of the empire, astronomy and other mathematical sciences were taught in Trebizond; medicine attracted the interest of almost all scholars.[259] The Fall of Constantinople in 1453 fuelled the era later commonly known as the "Italian Renaissance". During this period, refugee Byzantine scholars were principally responsible for carrying, in person and writing, ancient Greek grammatical, literary studies, mathematical, and astronomical knowledge to early Renaissance Italy.[260] They also brought with them classical learning and texts on botany, medicine and zoology, as well as the works of Dioscorides and John Philoponus' criticism of Aristotelian physics.[255]

Bas-relief plaque of Tribonian in the Chamber of the House of Representatives in the United States Capitol


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Mosaic of Jesus in Pammakaristos Church, Istanbul
Triumphal arch mosaics of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. In Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.

The Byzantine Empire was a theocracy, said to be ruled by God working through the emperor. Jennifer Fretland VanVoorst argues, "The Byzantine Empire became a theocracy in the sense that Christian values and ideals were the foundation of the empire's political ideals and heavily entwined with its political goals."[261] Steven Runciman says in his book The Byzantine Theocracy:

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The constitution of the Byzantine Empire was based on the conviction that it was the earthly copy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Just as God ruled in Heaven, so the Emperor, made in his image, should rule on earth and carry out his commandments ... It saw itself as a universal empire. Ideally, it should embrace all the peoples of the Earth who, ideally, should all be members of the one true Christian Church, its own Orthodox Church. Just as man was made in God's image, so man's kingdom on Earth was made in the image of the Kingdom of Heaven.[262]

The survival of the empire in the East assured an active role of the emperor in the affairs of the Church. The Byzantine state inherited from pagan times the administrative and financial routine of administering religious affairs, and this was applied to the Christian Church. Following the pattern set by Eusebius of Caesarea, the Byzantines viewed the emperor as a representative or messenger of Christ, responsible particularly for the propagation of Christianity among pagans, and for the "externals" of the religion, such as administration and finances. As Cyril Mango points out, Byzantine political thinking can be summarised in the motto "One God, one empire, one religion".[263]

Constantinople is generally considered the "cradle of Orthodox Christian civilization".[264] The imperial role in the affairs of the Church never developed into a fixed, legally defined system.[265] The decline of Rome and the internal dissension in the other Eastern patriarchates made the Church of Constantinople, between the 6th and 11th centuries, the richest and most influential centre of Christendom.[266] Even when the empire was reduced to only a shadow of its former self, the Church continued to exercise significant influence both inside and outside of the imperial frontiers. As George Ostrogorsky points out:

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The Patriarchate of Constantinople remained the centre of the Orthodox world, with subordinate metropolitan sees and archbishoprics in the territory of Asia Minor and the Balkans, now lost to Byzantium, as well as in Caucasus, Russia and Lithuania. The Church remained the most stable element in the Byzantine Empire.[267]

Byzantine monasticism especially came to be an "ever-present feature" of the empire, with monasteries becoming "powerful landowners and a voice to be listened to in imperial politics".[268]

The official state Christian doctrine was determined by the first seven ecumenical councils, and it was then the emperor's duty to impose it on his subjects. An imperial decree of 388, which was later incorporated into the Codex Justinianeus, orders the population of the empire "to assume the name of Catholic Christians", and regards all those who will not abide by the law as "mad and foolish persons"; as followers of "heretical dogmas".[269]

Despite imperial decrees and the stringent stance of the state church, which came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church or Eastern Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Church never represented all Christians in Byzantium. Mango believes that in the early stages of the empire, the "mad and foolish persons"—those labelled "heretics" by the state church—were the majority of the population.[270] Besides the pagans who existed until the end of the 6th century, and the Jews, there were many followers—sometimes even emperors—of various Christian doctrines, such as Nestorianism, Monophysitism, Arianism, and Paulicianism, whose teachings were in some opposition to the main theological doctrine as determined by the Ecumenical Councils.[271]

The Macedonian period included events of momentous religious significance. The conversion of the Bulgarians, Serbs and Rus' to Orthodox Christianity drew the religious map of Europe which still resonates today. Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine Greek brothers from Thessaloniki, contributed significantly to the Christianisation of the Slavs and in the process devised the Glagolitic alphabet, ancestor to the Cyrillic script.[272]

Dispute over iconoclasm

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A Simple Cross: An example of Iconoclast art in the Hagia Irene Church in Istanbul.

The 8th and early 9th centuries were dominated by controversy and religious division over iconoclasm, which constituted a primary political issue in the empire for over a century. Icons, in this context referring to all forms of religious imagery, were banned by Leo III and Constantine V around the year 730, leading to revolts by supporters of icons throughout the empire. After the efforts of Empress Irene, the Second Council of Nicaea met in 787 and affirmed that icons could be venerated but not worshipped. Irene is said to have endeavoured to negotiate a marriage between herself and Charlemagne, but according to Theophanes the Confessor the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her advisors.[273]

In the early 9th century, Leo V reintroduced the policy of iconoclasm, but in 843 Empress Theodora restored the veneration of icons with the help of Patriarch Methodios.[274] Iconoclasm played a part in the further alienation of East from West, which worsened during the so-called Photian schism when Pope Nicholas I challenged the elevation of Photios to the patriarchate.[275]

Relationship with Western Christendom

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Mural of Saints Cyril and Methodius, 19th century, Troyan Monastery, Bulgaria

The Bishop of Rome was part of the Empire until the 8th century. It would eventually form as the Vatican state and be involved in western Europe's rivalry with the Empire.

Status of non-Christians

Jews were a significant minority in the Byzantine state throughout its history, and according to Roman law, they constituted a legally recognised religious group. In the early Byzantine period they were generally tolerated, but then periods of tensions and persecutions ensued. After the Arab conquests the majority of Jews found themselves outside the empire; those left inside the Byzantine borders apparently lived in relative peace from the 10th century onward.[276]


Political aftermath

The Eastern Mediterranean just before the Fall of Constantinople
Flag of the late Empire under the Palaiologoi, sporting the tetragrammic cross symbol of the Palaiologos dynasty

By the time of the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, already an empire in name only since the Fourth Crusade, had been reduced to three rump states: the Despotate of the Morea, the Empire of Trebizond and the Principality of Theodoro. The Morea was ruled by the brothers of Constantine XI, Thomas Palaiologos and Demetrios Palaiologos. The despotate continued as an independent state by paying an annual tribute to the Ottomans. Incompetent rule, failure to pay the annual tribute, and a revolt against the Ottomans finally led to Mehmed II's invasion of Morea in May 1460.[277]

A few holdouts remained for a time. In the Morea, the island of Monemvasia came under the pope's protection before the end of 1460, while the Mani Peninsula submitted to Venice.[278] The Empire of Trebizond, which had split away from the Byzantine Empire just weeks before Constantinople was taken by the Crusaders in 1204, became the last remnant and last de facto successor state to the Byzantine Empire. Efforts by Emperor David to recruit European powers for an anti-Ottoman crusade provoked war between the Ottomans and Trebizond in the summer of 1461. After a month-long siege, David surrendered the city of Trebizond on 14 August 1461. Trebizond's Crimean principality, the Principality of Theodoro (part of the Perateia), lasted another 14 years, falling to the Ottomans in December 1475.

Mehmed II and his successors continued to consider themselves heirs to the Roman Empire. They considered that they had shifted their religious basis as Constantine had done before, and they continued to refer to their conquered Eastern Roman inhabitants (Orthodox Christians) as Rûm. This claim gradually faded away as the Ottoman Empire assumed a more Islamic political identity.[279] Meanwhile, the Danubian Principalities (whose rulers also considered themselves the heirs of the Eastern Roman Emperors[280]) harboured Orthodox refugees, including some Byzantine nobles.

At Constantine's death, the role of the emperor as a patron of Eastern Orthodoxy was claimed by Ivan III, Grand Prince of Muscovy. He had married Andreas' sister, Sophia Palaiologina, whose grandson, Ivan IV, would become the first tsar of Russia (tsar, or czar, meaning caesar, is a term traditionally applied by Slavs to the Byzantine emperors). Their successors supported the idea that Moscow was the proper heir to Rome and Constantinople. The idea of the Russian Empire as the successive Third Rome was kept alive until its demise with the Russian Revolution.[281]

Cultural aftermath

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Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Hagia Sophia, c. 1261

Byzantium has been often identified with absolutism, orthodox spirituality, orientalism and exoticism, while the terms "Byzantine" and "Byzantinism" have been used as bywords for decadence, complex bureaucracy, and repression. Both Eastern and Western European authors have often perceived Byzantium as a body of religious, political, and philosophical ideas contrary to those of the West. Even in 19th-century Greece, the focus was mainly on the classical past, while Byzantine tradition had been associated with negative connotations.[282]

This traditional approach towards Byzantium has been partially or wholly disputed and revised by modern studies, which focus on the positive aspects of Byzantine culture and legacy. Averil Cameron regards as undeniable the Byzantine contribution to the formation of medieval Europe, and both Cameron and Obolensky recognise the major role of Byzantium in shaping Orthodoxy, which in turn occupies a central position in the history, societies and culture of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Georgia, Serbia and other countries.[283] The Byzantines also preserved and copied classical manuscripts, and they are thus regarded as transmitters of classical knowledge, as important contributors to modern European civilisation, and as precursors of both Renaissance humanism and Slavic-Orthodox culture.[284]

As the only stable long-term state in Europe during the Middle Ages, Byzantium isolated Western Europe from newly emerging forces to the East. Constantly under attack, it distanced Western Europe from Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and for a time, the Ottomans. From a different perspective, since the 7th century, the evolution and constant reshaping of the Byzantine state were directly related to the respective progress of Islam.[284] Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II took the title "Kaysar-i Rûm" (the Ottoman Turkish equivalent of Caesar of Rome), since he was determined to make the Ottoman Empire the heir of the Eastern Roman Empire.[285]

See also



  1. Medieval Greek: Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων [Basileía Rhōmaíōn] Error: [undefined] Error: {{Transl}}: missing language / script code (help): unrecognized language / script code: gkm (help) (Roman Empire); Medieval Greek: Ῥωμανία [Rhōmanía] Error: [undefined] Error: {{Transl}}: missing language / script code (help): unrecognized language / script code: gkm (help) (Romania); Medieval Greek: Ῥωμαῖοι [Rhōmaîoi] Error: [undefined] Error: {{Transl}}: missing language / script code (help): unrecognized language / script code: gkm (help) (Romans)


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    Le nom "université" désigne au Moyen Âge occidental une organisation corporative des élèves et des maîtres, avec ses fonctions et privilèges, qui cultive un ensemble d'études supérieures. L'existence d'une telle institution est fort contestée pour Byzance. Seule l'école de Constantinople sous Théodose Il peut être prise pour une institution universitaire. Par la loi de 425, l'empereur a établi l'"université de Constantinople", avec 31 professeurs rémunérés par l'État qui jouissaient du monopole des cours publics.

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Primary sources

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Secondary sources

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External links

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Byzantine studies, resources and bibliography

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