Post-classical history

Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire, or Byzantium, is the conventional modern name for the medieval Christian Greek-speaking empire that was created after the division of the Roman Empire into western and eastern parts, Byzantium being the eastern part of the empire. Contemporary Byzantines referred to their empire in Greek as Romaike autokratoria (Roman Empire) or autokratoria ton Romaion (empire of the Romans), regarding it as the continuation of the ancient Roman Empire; Westerners called it the “Greek Empire” or “Empire of the Greeks.” The name Byzantium was only used by the people of the empire to describe the city of Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), which was founded in the seventh century b.c. by Byzas, a Greek from Megara; Byzantium never referred to the empire itself. The term Byzantine was introduced by Hieronymus Wolf in 1562.

The Byzantine Empire was a multinational empire, composed primarily of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Slavs. Initially, the official language of the empire was Latin, but in the seventh century it was replaced by Greek, which was the vernacular used by the various peoples of the empire.

The history of the empire, the longest-lived of Western civilization, spans more than eleven centuries. There is no generally agreed date for the beginning of Byzantine (as opposed to Roman) history. Some modern scholars have suggested that it began in 324, when Emperor Constantine I the Great became monokrator (sole ruler) of the Roman Empire, or in 330, when Constantine transferred the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople. Others suggest 395, when Emperor Theodosios the Great died and the empire was divided into western and eastern parts. Other suggested dates are the year 284, when Diocleteian became emperor; the year 610, when Heraclius I became emperor; and the year 717, when the Isaurian dynasty ascended the throne of Constantinople. Most scholars agree, however, that the fourth century should be considered as the beginning of Byzantine history. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks (1453) can be regarded as its end, in spite of the fact that two Byzantine territories, the despotate of Mistra and the empire of Trebizond, fell to the Turks only in 1460 and 1461 respectively.

At the beginning of its existence, the borders of Byzantium coincided with those of the eastern Roman Empire. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I extended its frontiers to the Atlantic, capturing the southern part of Spain as well as northern African lands. In the following centuries the Arabs, Lombards, Slavs, and Normans deprived Byzantium of most of its territories outside the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor. In the last centuries of its existence, the empire was confined to the southern Balkans and western Asia Minor. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, it lost Asia Minor to the Turks; in the middle of that century, it had only eastern Macedonia and Thrace under its authority; and at the beginning of the fifteenth century, it was confined to Constantinople, a few islands in the Aegean Sea, and the despotate of Mistra in the Peloponnese.

The Byzantine Empire at the end of the twelfth century

The Byzantine Empire at the end of the twelfth century

The Early Byzantine Period (330-717)

The early Byzantine period has also been called proto-Byzantine, referring to the period of Late Antiquity. In this period, the administrative and legal systems of the empire were influenced significantly by those of the Roman Empire in the previous centuries. Until 476, the Byzantine emperor also ruled the western half of the empire, part of which Justinian I managed to recover briefly in the first half of the sixth century. This period is characterized by the transfer of the capital to Constantinople and the toleration of Christianity and subsequent adoption of the Christian faith as the official religion of the empire, by the gradual adoption of the Greek language as the official language of the empire, and by the defeat of invaders who appeared at the borders of the empire.

Constantinople, or New Rome, was located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and protected by the sea on three sides, and it controlled the land route that joins Europe and Asia Minor and also the sea route connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. It was also closer than Rome to the Danube area, which had been invaded by Germanic peoples, and to the eastern borders of the empire, which were under threat from the Persian Empire. It was thus the perfect choice for a capital from a strategic point of view.

Christianity was recognized as a legal religion by Emperor Constantine I in 313 and proclaimed as the official state religion by Emperor Theodosios I in 380. During this period, the first rift between the church of Constantinople and the church of Rome took place, while in six ecumenical synods, all of which took place in the eastern half of the empire and in all of which the Byzantine emperors were involved, the doctrine of the Christian faith was defined, and various heresies (including Arianism and Nestorianism) were proscribed.

When Constantine I transferred the capital of the empire, the new state administration in Constantinople was Latinspeaking. The adoption of Greek as the official language of the state was a slow process. From the fourth century, court judgments could be recorded in Greek; in the fifth century wills written in Greek were considered valid, and in the sixth century a new series of laws, the Novellae, were written in Greek; however, it was only in the seventh century that Greek became the sole official language of the state. The church, however, only ever used the Greek language, since the east ern part of the empire was Hellenized to a large extent and Greek was the language understood by most of the citizens there. In this period, the empire successfully turned back the waves of Goths, Franks, and Lombards on its northern and western borders, the early Turkish-speaking peoples in the north, and the Persians in the east; however, by 642 the Arabs had succeeded in depriving the empire of all of its provinces in the Near East and Egypt, and in the 670s and 710s they even besieged Constantinople.

The Middle Byzantine Period (717-1204)

During this period, a number of significant ecclesiastical, political, and military events occurred that affected the power and prestige of the empire.

A religious controversy known as iconoclasm (or icono-machy) arose as a result of disputes among the Christians of the empire over the veneration of icons, beginning in 726. By its end in 843, it had devastated the empire financially and cost a number of emperors their thrones because their views on iconoclasm did not coincide with those of the majority of the population at that time. In the ninth century, systematic Byzantine missionary expeditions led to the Christianization of the Slavic peoples and the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet by two missionary brothers, SS. Constantine (Cyril) and Methodios.

On Christmas Day 800 the Frankish king Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was crowned by the pope in Rome as emperor and governor of the Roman Empire. From this time the Byzantine Empire, from being an (ecumenical) “Roman” Empire, became a “Greek” Empire in the political and ecclesiastical perceptions of western Europe.

In the 860s, dogmatic and ritual differences between the church of Constantinople and the church of Rome, together with a clash of personalities of their leaders, led to a rift, which was healed, however, in 886. In 1054, during the reign of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, the patriarchate of Michael Keroularios, and the pontificate of Leo IX, the Greek Orthodox and Latin churches separated because of their ecclesiastical and theological differences, which were triggered by the intervention of the pope in bishoprics under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople.

In the middle Byzantine era, the empire succeeded in repelling a number of attacks by Arabs and Bulgarians. In 1071, however, it suffered severe territorial losses on two fronts. In eastern Anatolia, Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes suffered a disastrous defeat by the Saljûq Turks at the battle of Mantzikert, which resulted in the loss of a large part of the Byzantine lands in Asia Minor. In Italy, the Normans seized Bari, the last Byzantine territory on the peninsula. During the reign of the first two emperors of the Komnenoi dynasty, Byzantium managed to recover some of its territorial losses of the previous decades. Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (d. 1118) succeeded in recovering part of Asia Minor with the help of crusaders and defeated his enemies in the Balkans, while his son John II (d. 1143) extended the dominion of the empire in the Balkans at the expense of the Pecheneg and Cuman peoples. These successes were reversed in 1176 when the Byzantines suffered another crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks at Myriokephalon in Asia Minor.

During the rule of the Komnenoi (1081-1185) and the Angeloi (1185-1204) dynasties, the presence of Westerners in the eastern Mediterranean changed the political, military, and financial status quo in the region. The Norman conquerors of southern Italy, with their many attacks against Byzantine lands, posed a serious threat to the empire, and the Italian naval cities, thanks to the commercial privileges they had been granted by the Byzantine emperors, gained control of trade in the eastern Mediterranean and thus reduced Byzantium’s financial resources. The first commercial privileges were granted to Venice in 1082 as the direct result of the military pressure Byzantium was under from the Normans. In the treaty of May 1082 between Byzantium and Venice, the latter promised to support the Byzantine Empire against the Normans and in return received, among other privileges, an annual tribute and tax-free trading privileges in the empire. In his struggle against Norman imperialism, Alexios I also approached the Holy Roman (Western) emperor, Henry IV, and Pope Gregory VII, but only Venice supported him militarily against the Normans.

In the 1090s it was the Saljûq Turks who posed the most serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. After the crushing defeat at Mantzikert, the Byzantines were unable to put a halt to Turkish advances, which led to the capture of the town of Nicaea (mod. Iznik, Turkey) in 1081, the establishment of the sultanate of Rûm in Bithynia, and the loss of the important city of Antioch on the Orontes (mod. Antakya, Turkey) in Syria in 1085. In March 1095, a Byzantine embassy sent by Alexios I Komnenos to Pope Urban II appealed for military aid in the struggle against the Turks. In November 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Urban appealed for a campaign to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims, to pass through Asia Minor. The series of expeditions now known as the First Crusade (1096-1099) was the help that the Byzantines were offered by the West against the Turks.

The first crusaders who reached Constantinople in summer 1096 under the leadership of Peter the Hermit and Walter Sans-Avoir were well received by Emperor Alexios, despite having raided the Byzantine countryside and clashed with Byzantine forces in the central Balkans because of their attacks against locals. They were transferred hastily across the Bosporus to Asia Minor for fear of further adverse incidents if they stayed in the empire any longer. On 21 October 1096 they were ambushed by the Turks and annihilated.

Between summer 1096 and May 1097, a more disciplined crusader army assembled at Constantinople from different contingents that had traveled by several routes from the West.

The arrival of the crusaders in the Byzantine Empire brought its authorities and the local population face-to-face with unfamiliar and threatening attitudes and practices. Violent clashes between the crusader armies and their Byzantine escorts on their way to Constantinople, raids on its suburbs, foraging in the countryside, looting, the destruction of a small town in Macedonia, and an attack on Constantinople itself on Maundy Thursday 1097 shocked the Byzantines and worried Alexios. Another source of worry was the presence of armed Norman crusaders under Bohe-mund of Taranto, when only a few years earlier the emperor had appealed to the West for help against Norman attacks. More importantly, since no provision had been made at the launch of the crusade regarding dominion over the lands that the crusaders might liberate from the Muslims, the Byzantines were concerned about the fate of their former territories in the East. For that reason, Alexios demanded from the leaders of the crusade two oaths: the first was a promise to hand over to the Byzantines all the lands they liberated from the Turks that had once belonged to Byzantium; the second was an oath of homage and fealty. In return, the Byzantine emperor gave them a large financial subsidy, but did not promise to take on the leadership of the crusade, something most of its leaders were hoping for. The Byzantines did help the crusaders militarily, however. After transporting them to Asia Minor, they joined them in besieging the capital of the sultanate of Rûm,Nicaea, which in June 1097 surrendered to the Byzantine emperor. Next, the Byzantine army liberated Smyrna, and Alexios himself advanced toward Phrygia while the crusaders advanced east to Syria and Mesopotamia. In June 1098, the city of Antioch was captured, but was not handed over to the Byzantines as had been agreed, and on 15 July 1099, Jerusalem was liberated.

The imperial church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The minarets were added when the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque after capturing the city in 1453. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

The imperial church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The minarets were added when the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque after capturing the city in 1453. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

The newly established Norman principality of Antioch, under Bohemund I (of Taranto), proved to be a constant source of worry to the Byzantines. When they reoccupied Tarsos, Adana, Misis, and Laodikeia in Syria, Bohemund went to Europe to organize a crusade against the Byzantine Empire. In 1107, the army that he assembled in the West landed in Valona and marched on Dyrrachion (Durazzo), where Byzantines and Normans met again outside the walls of the city, twenty-five years after their last encounter there. Bohemund was defeated and in 1108 signed a treaty with Emperor Alexios at Devol, according to which he was to rule over the principality of Antioch as the Byzantine emperor’s vassal. However, Bohemund did not dare return to Antioch, and the terms of the treaty were never implemented by Tan-cred, his regent there.

The disputes between Byzantium and Antioch continued after the death of Alexios I and Bohemund I. In 1137, Emperor John II Komnenos subjugated Cilicia (Lesser Armenia), which lay between the Byzantine Empire and the principality of Antioch. In August 1137, Antioch surrendered to him after a short siege, and its ruler, Raymond of Poitiers, offered him an oath of vassalage. In 1142, Raymond annulled his agreement with John II and the Byzantine emperor planned an expedition against him, but died unexpectedly in April 1143.

Manuel I Komnenos (d. 1180), John’s son and successor, achieved a temporary success against the Frankish states. During his reign, the armies of the Second Crusade (1147-1149) passed through the empire. Once again, there were violent skirmishes between the crusaders and the locals (an attack was proposed against Constantinople by the bishop of Langres’s party), but on a lesser scale than those of the First Crusade. Adopting his grandfather’s policy toward the crusaders, Manuel transferred them to Asia Minor as soon as possible, and demanded an oath of homage from their leaders and also a promise that they would hand over to him all the former Byzantine lands that they captured. The first wave of crusaders who were transported to Asia in 1147 consisted of Germans under the leadership of King Conrad III. Manuel had recently become his kinsman, having married Bertha, a relative of the German king. He also had an alliance with Conrad against the Normans of Sicily. In their first encounter with the Turks, the German crusaders were defeated. The second, French, wave of crusaders under King Louis VII joined forces with the surviving Germans and marched through Byzantine lands along the coast, but in January 1148, at Antalya, they suffered severely from Turkish attacks. Short of supplies and with little assistance from the Byzantines, only a small number of exhausted crusaders reached Antioch. On his way back to the West, Conrad III stopped in Constantinople, where he was received warmly and committed himself to an expedition against Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, who had captured Corfu, Corinth, and Thebes while Byzantium was preoccupied with the crusade in the East. Manuel’s achievements with regard to Outremer after the end of the Second Crusade were impressive. In 1158, he marched against the principality of Antioch and Cilicia, which in 1156 had attacked Byzantine Cyprus. Manuel forced the rulers of both states, Prince Reynald of Antioch and Prince T‘oros II of Armenia, to pay homage to him. In the same year, King Baldwin III of Jerusalem put himself under the protection of the Byzantine emperor and married one of Manuel’s nieces, Theodora. In April 1159, Manuel entered Antioch in triumph, riding a white horse with Reynald walking alongside him, and two years later he sealed the special relationship that he had established with Antioch by his marriage to Princess Maria of Antioch.

The issue of the nationality and confession of the patriarch of Antioch was a source of constant friction between the Latin principality and Byzantium during the Komnenian period: the Greek emperors considered themselves protectors of the Orthodox population of the area, and the Greek Orthodox Church refused to accept the Latinization of the church of Antioch. After the expulsion of the Greek patriarch John of Oxeia from Antioch in 1100, the Byzantines appointed another Greek as (titular) patriarch of Antioch, thus refusing to accept John’s Latin successor. In 1136-1137, during the successful Byzantine expedition against Cilicia and Antioch, there seemed to be a real prospect of restoring the Greek patriarch of Antioch to his throne, but in the end that goal was not realized because of Emperor John II’s withdrawal to Europe in order to deal with the Normans of southern Italy. During Manuel I’s successful campaign against the principality of Antioch in 1159, the issue of the restoration of the Greek patriarch of Antioch to his throne was not raised, mainly because Manuel did not want to jeopardize the de facto recognition of his overlordship by the rulers of the Latin East by upsetting the religious sentiment of the Latins there. Prince Bohemund III agreed to restore the Greek patriarch in 1165 in return for the money that the Byzantine emperor offered to pay the ransom he owed Nûr al-Dīn for his freedom. In 1170, after an earthquake that killed the Greek patriarch of Antioch, the Latin patriarch was brought back, thus forcing the next two Greek patriarchs to live in exile in Constantinople.

In 1189, the Byzantines were reassured by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, that the passage of the crusaders of the Third Crusade (1189-1192) through Byzantine lands would be peaceful. The Byzantines in return promised to supply provisions and guides. In the same year, however, the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos renewed the treaty of alliance that his predecessor Andronikos I had signed with Saladin with the purpose of impeding the German crusaders’ passage to Jerusalem. The reason Isaac sided with Saladin was the close relationship that Emperor Frederick had established with the Serb, Bulgarian, and Turkish enemies of Byzantium. Frederick responded to the treaty with Saladin, as well as to Isaac’s demand that he should hand over to Byzantium half of his future conquests from the Muslims, by capturing the city of Philippopolis, plundering the Byzantine countryside, and starting preparations to march against Constantinople. The threat to the Byzantine capital forced Isaac to sign a treaty with Frederick in 1190, providing for the transfer of the crusaders to Asia Minor and their provisioning. The only event of the Third Crusade that had a lasting impact on Byzantium was the capture of Cyprus by one of the leaders of the crusade, King Richard I of England (1191).

The aim of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was the liberation of the Holy Land from the Ayyûbids by means of an invasion of Egypt, but lack of funds to pay the Venetians the agreed costs of naval transport to the Levant was the main reason for the diversion of the crusade against the town of Zara (mod. Zadar, Croatia), which they captured and plundered. The crusaders were then invited to turn against Byzantium by an exiled Byzantine prince, the future Alexios IV, to restore his father, Isaac II Angelos, who had been deposed in 1195. Alexios IV Angelos promised the crusaders and the Venetians a large sum of money, committed himself to assist the crusade after his father had been restored to the throne, and promised to work toward the reunification of the Greek Orthodox and Latin churches. A few months later, after Alexios had failed to fulfill his promise to pay the crusaders, they besieged Constantinople, capturing the city in April 1204. For three days the Byzantine capital was ruthlessly sacked.

Byzantine Emperors in the


Period of the Crusades


Alexios I Komnenos


John II Komnenos


Manuel I Komnenos


Alexios II Komnenos


Andronikos I Komnenos


Isaac II Angelos


Alexios III Angelos


Isaac II Angelos (again)


Alexios IV Angelos


Alexios V Doukas Mourtzouphlos


Latin Empire of Constantinople


Michael VIII Palaiologos


Andronikos II Palaiologos


Michael IX Palaiologos


Andronikos III Palaiologos


John V Palaiologos


John VI Kantakouzenos


Matthew Kantakouzenos


Andronikos IV Palaiologos


John V Palaiologos (again)


John VII Palaiologos


John V Palaiologos (again)


Manuel II Palaiologos


John VII Palaiologos (again)


John VIII Palaiologos


Constantine XI Palaiologos


The diversion of the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople and the atrocities committed by the crusaders and the Venetians after the capture of the Byzantine capital can be fully explained if Byzantine-Latin relations of the recent past are taken into consideration. There is no doubt that the crusaders and the Venetians wanted their debts to be paid by the Byzantines, but apart from this, a significant role in the events of 1204 was played by the antipathy that had been cultivated for decades in the West against Byzantium because of the lack of commitment of the Byzantine emperors to the aims of the crusaders. Further contributory factors were the schism between the Latin and Greek Orthodox churches, the imperialistic policy of Emperor Manuel I toward the West, the anti-Latin policy of Emperor Andronikos I, and finally long-standing Western ambitions to conquer Constantinople, which had been an aim of the Norman kings of Sicily in the eleventh century, and may well have been considered by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa and his son Emperor Henry VI in the twelfth century.

The Later Byzantine Period (1204-1453)

This was the period of the decline and collapse of the Byzantine Empire, which, apart from external enemies, now also faced civil wars and rebellions. Around the time of the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, a number of independent Greek states were established in the lands of the former Byzantine Empire, three of which played a dominant role in the political developments in the area in the first decades of the thirteenth century: the empire of Nicaea, the principality of Epiros, and the empire of Trebizond. The empire of Nicaea fought against the other two states in its struggle to be recognized by Greeks as the legitimate successor state of the Byzantine Empire. It achieved this aim in 1230, when the Bulgarian army of Ivan Asen II crushed the Epirote army at the battle of Klokotnitsa. The empire of Trebizond had already been a vassal state to the Saljûq sultanate of Rûm since 1214. The Nicaean army liberated Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, and the Nicaean emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos himself entered the city in triumph in August 1261, thus restoring the Byzantine Empire. However, in the 1270s popular uprisings took place in the empire because the vast majority of Byzantines disagreed with Michael’s policy of forcing the Orthodox Church to accept reunification with the Church of Rome on papal terms in return for political benefits for the empire.

Further internal restlessness occurred during the reigns of Michael’s successors. Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos fought for seven years (1321-1328) against his grandson Andronikos III. In the mid-fourteenth century the religious movement known as Hesychasm (quietude) led to an open conflict among members of the church and also between the church and the emperor. A civil war (1341-1347), which initially did not seem to have social causes but eventually became a violent manifestation of the hostility between the lower classes and the landed aristocracy, was the worst civil conflict, which destroyed almost everything, according to Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos. After the end of the civil war, John VI ruled in the place of the young John V Palaiologos, thus interrupting for seven years the rule of the Palaiologoi dynasty (1347-1354). Finally, when John V was restored to the throne, he had to face the rebellion of his son Andronikos IV and then of his grandson John VII.

In this period, the empire was surrounded only by enemies. The continuing commercial privileges enjoyed by Italian maritime cities (principally Venice and Genoa) posed a threat to the existence of the empire: they enabled those cities to intervene at will in its internal affairs by means of the fleets they had stationed in Byzantine waters. The Angevin dynasty that ruled southern Italy and Sicily was a serious threat to the integrity of the Byzantine Empire throughout the reign of Michael VIII Palaiologos. In order to reduce this danger, Michael submitted the Greek Orthodox Church to the Latin Church, believing that the pope would be willing and able to hold back an Angevin attack against Byzantium. At the same time, the Ottoman Turks were consolidating their position in Asia Minor at the expense of the Saljûqs of Rûm and later of the Byzantines themselves, who, by the beginning of the fourteenth century, had lost most of Bithynia (in northwestern Asia Minor) to them. In the fourteenth century, the Byzantine lands in northern and central Greece were captured by the Serbs, who, under Tsar Stephan Dusan, deprived the Byzantine Empire of almost half of its lands, and by the Catalan Company, which established control over the duchy of Athens and Thebes (1311-1388) after the Byzantine emperor had been unable to pay it for its mercenary services.

In 1354, the Ottomans crossed over to Europe for the first time and captured the Gallipoli peninsula. By the end of the century, a number of Byzantine cities in the Balkans had succumbed, and in 1390 the last Byzantine stronghold in Asia Minor was captured by the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I. A Western-Balkan coalition against the Turks, the so-called Crusade of Nikopolis, ended in disaster in 1396. It was mainly thanks to the defeat of the Turks by the Mongols at the battle of Ankara in 1402 that the Byzantine Empire managed to survive for a further fifty years.

Aid from abroad was desperately needed for the empire, but the means that were employed to achieve this occasionally caused more problems in the empire. Attempts to heal the schism between the Orthodox and Latin churches at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1439) were followed by internal unrest in the Byzantine Empire, whose population was divided into “unionists” and “anti-unionists.” As at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, the motivations of the Byzantines in signing the agreement on the reunification of the churches were mainly political, hoping for military aid from the West. Pope Eugenius IV appealed to Western rulers for a crusade against the Turks, and in the summer of 1443, about 25,000 crusaders, Hungarians, Serbs, and Vlachs were assembled. In November 1443 they captured Nis and entered Sofia; in June 1444 King Ladislas of Hungary signed a ten-year truce with the Turkish sultan Murad II, which, however, lasted for only a few months. In November 1444 the Hungarians and the crusaders renewed their military activities and besieged Varna, but were defeated by the Turks there on 10 November. The Crusade of Varna was the last attempt in the Byzantine era for a coordinated Christian offensive against the Turks. When Emperor Constantine XI Palaiolo-gos ascended the throne in 1448, only military help from the West could offer the empire any hope of survival, and to that end, the Byzantine emperor again tried to implement the reunification of the churches agreed to in Ferrara-Florence. The much needed aid from the West did not arrive on time, and Constantinople fell to the Turks on 29 May 1453, followed by the despotate of Mistra in 1460 and the empire of Trebi-zond in 1461.

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