In the latter part of the third century A.D., the Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western regions. While the eastern provinces prospered, its western counterpart was weakened by attacks of Germanic tribes. Progressively, the center of power in the Empire shifted from Rome to the eastern Mediterranean. Prior to the fall of the West into the hands of its conquerors, there were, in effect, two empires. The new civilization that took shape in the east was called Byzantine civilization. Constantine the Great established Constantinople as the empire’s capital city. It endured for a thousand years. Several armies tried weaken the empire but it was only the Ottomans who succeeded as the Fall of Constantinople finally happened in 1453.
The Fall of Constantinople
As Europe faced the disorder of the early Middle Ages, two empires to the East were becoming prosperous and powerful. The Byzantine Empire, centered at Constantinople, grew up in the Roman Empire’s eastern territory following the collapse of Rome.
In the last part of the nineteenth century, the struggle for unification, self-rule, and independence continued in Europe. Italy and Germany both became unified countries in 1870-1871, and nationalist feelings of pride and loyalty played a major role in their unifications (Grant, 1998). Those who fought to realize their nationalist goals felt they had a noble cause.
For the Eastern European empires, each of which included many peoples, nationalism brought problems. The Austrian Empire of the Hapsburgs faced unrest from Slavic nationalities and was forced to grant equal status in the empire to Hungary. Revolts by different national groups had nearly destroyed the Ottoman Empire by 1900 (Goffmann, 2002; Odahl, 2004; Runciman, 1990). In imperial Russia, expansionist ambitions added more territory. Discontent among the empire’s minorities created unrest, however, and led the czars to tighten their control over Russia.
Constantine the Great
Born in A.D. 275, the first Christian emperor of Rome is Constantine the Great (Grant, 1998). Under his governance, freedom of religion was once again enjoyed by the Christians. Moreover, the church became legal. He was revered as a saint in Eastern Orthodox religion. Constantine restored Byzantine, present day Istanbul in Turkey. Serving as the empire’s capital, the city came to be known as Constantinople. He moved the concentration of the Roman Empire from Rome towards the eastern provinces and by doing so he positioned the groundwork for the Byzantine Empire. Constantine the Great breathed his last in 337 (Grant, 1998).
The Fall of Constantinople
On the 29th day of May 1453, the Byzantine Empire finally fell under the hands of the Ottomans (Goffmann, 2002). This historical event was known as the Fall of Constantinople. Such fall served as the end of the political independence of the empire which lasted for more than a millennium. Most significantly, the event hastened the scholarly departure of the Byzantines Greeks causing the entry of Classical Greek Studies to Renaissance Europe. Furthermore, it was greatly influential in the political stability of the Ottomans as well as in the empire’s later expansion further into the Balkan and Eastern Mediterranean territories (Runciman, 1990).
The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire was the most powerful empire in the world during the 1500’s and 1600’s (Runciman, 1990). At its height, it controlled what is now Turkey and parts of northern Africa, southwestern Asia, and southern Europe. The empire began about 1300 and lasted until 1922. The Ottomans were nomadic Turkish tribes that migrated to the Middle East from central Asia (Goffmann, 2002).
Before the arrival of the Ottomans, the Byzantine Empire had occupied parts of Asia Minor and southeastern Europe for almost 1,000 years (Goffmann, 2002; Runciman, 1990). That empire ended in 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine capital of Constantinople. They made the city their capital. By the mid-1500’s, the Ottomans ruled Asia Minor, the Balkans, and parts of northern Africa and present-day Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria (Runciman, 1990). The Ottomans were Muslims and they spread their religion, Islam, throughout the empire.
The Once Great and Mighty Empire
The reign of the Roman Empire carried over to the Byzantine Empire. This once mighty and powerful empire was at other times called the East Roman Empire for the reason that it governed what had been the eastern portion of the empire which came before it (Goffmann, 2002; Grant, 1998; Runciman, 1990). In A.D. 500’s when it reached the peak in terms of size, the empire constituted regions in the Middle East, northern African as well as eastern and southern Europe (Odahl, 2004).
The people of the Byzantine Empire were descendants of various ancient peoples. Many Americans and Slavs lived in the remote areas of the empire. In Constantinople, the upper class included Americans, Bulgarians, Greeks, Normans, and Turks (Grant, 1998; Odahl, 2004). The Byzantines spoke Greek.
The majority of Byzantines were poor farmers who live in one-room huts built of wood or of bricks made of mud. Most houses in Constantinople were made of wood. However, the rich lived in stone mansions, many of which had an enclosed courtyard.
Byzantine culture required women to live partly in seclusion, and large houses had separate sections for them. Most women spent their lives doing household tasks. However, some received education, and women ruled the empire several times. Empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian I, was one of ht most powerful women of the Byzantine Empire (Odahl, 2004). She influenced her husband’s policies and used her power to advance her friends and to ruin her enemies.
Religion played an important part in the lives of the Byzantines. Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and encouraged his subjects to become Christians. Under Theodosius I, who came to power in 379, Christianity became the official state religion. Byzantine missionaries spread Christianity throughout the empire and converted the Russians and other Slavic peoples. Today, the Eastern Orthodox Churches carry on the Byzantine religious tradition (Odahl, 2004).
Constantinople was the educational center of the Byzantine Empire. It was where future government officials were taught how to read and in the language used by the ancient Greeks (Odahl, 2004; Runciman, 1990). It was the language used for political purposes, differed from a simpler form of Greek spoken by most Byzantines. The Byzantines produced noted works in history and wrote fine poetry, including religious poems. They also created much religious prose.
When the Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire, he moved his imperial court to Asia Minor (Odahl, 2004). A co-emperor continued to rule in Italy, but Rome was no longer the center of the Empire. In A.D. 330, a new capital city was established to represent the empire ruled by Constantine the Great. Called Constantinople, it rose in Byzantium, and ancient city in Greece. Byzantium was on a peninsula in the straits of the Bosporus (Odahl, 2004). The waterway is regarded as the traditional dividing line between Europe and Asia.
The new capital was a fortress city, perfectly situated to resist attack from land or sea. The three seaward sides of the peninsula were protected by the sea and a single wall. On the land side were a wide moat and three massive walls. For several years, conquerors after conquerors attempted so hard to break through Constantinople’s defenses but only one of them succeeded.
Constantinople became the center of the new Byzantine Empire that developed out of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine culture was a blending of several influences. Its language and traditions were Greek, and its system of law and administration was Roman. Its religion followed the beliefs and practices of the early Christian communities in the eastern Mediterranean. Byzantine artists were influenced by Greek, Asian, and early Christian sources.
Byzantine emperors considered themselves the successors of the Roman emperors and so claimed to rule all the lands that had once been part of the Roman Empire. There was no established line of rulers in Constantinople, however. Political intrigue and struggles for power were frequent, and many emperors died violently.
Byzantine emperors were absolute rulers who claimed that they were chosen by God to govern the people. They instituted and unmade laws and controlled the trade and industry, took charge of the navy and army as well as administered foreign affairs. By claiming the right to appoint the patriarch, the head of the Church in Constantinople, the emperors also influenced Church policy.
Beginning 527 until 565, under the governance of Emperor Justinian, the empire reached its peak in terms of size (Grant, 1998; Odahl, 2004). Justinian believed that it was through the re-conquest of the west that he may be able to restore the glory of the Roman Empire. During his reign, the empire grew to include Asia Minor, the Balkan Peninsula, Egypt, Italy, North Africa, Palestine, the southern coast of Spain, and Syria (Grant, 1998).
Under his governance, the Byzantines prepared several regulations of the ancient Romans. The set of laws were collected and named the Justinian Code (Odahl, 2004). Legal systems of other nations had been based on such code. The majestic cathedral called Hagia Sophia was also built following the order of the emperor. This largest church of the Justinian Empire continues to draw tourists to Istanbul until this very day (Grant, 1998).
While trade flourished at the time of the emperor’s rule so did the arts and architecture of the empire. However, much of the funds had been spent on the expensive cost of the war as well as in the process of restoration done at that time. Consequently, the empire was broke at the time of the emperor’s death in 565 (Runicman, 1990).
Following his death, the empire faced attacks from the barbarian forces at all fronts. Lombards from Germany conquered regions of Italy and the Avars and Slavs entered by force into the Balkan Peninsula (Odahl, 2004). Such invasions destabilized the empire beginning the late 500’s until the early 600’s. By the year 610, under the reign of Heraclius, the Byzantine forces defeated the Persian, momentarily preventing the total collapse of the empire (Grant, 1998).
In 634, the empire experienced another attack on its Middle Eastern portion this time coming from the Muslim Arab forces. The attack likewise destabilized the empire. The greatest threat to the Byzantines, however, came from the Arabs who followed the new religion of Islam. By 642, Muslim Arabs had taken Egypt, Syria, and Palestine from Byzantium (Grant, 1998). Beginning in 673, they regularly attacked Constantinople by land and sea. By this time, however, the Byzantine defenders were aided by a new invention called Greek fire (Odahl, 2004). A fiery explosive liquid shot from tubes, it set enemy ships afire and made blazing pools of flame on the surface of the water. Armed with these frightening weapons, the light Byzantine ships held off the better-built Arab ships.
In 700’s, the empire only composed of southern Italy and Sicily, Crete, the Balkan coast, and Asia Minor (Grant, 1998). From 717 until 718, a massive Arab naval attack on Constantinople failed (Goffmann, 2002; Runicman, 1990). This defeat ended for a time the Muslim advances in the eastern Mediterranean and was crucial for the history of Europe. If Constantinople had fallen, the Muslims would have been able to overrun the Balkans and sail up the Danube River into the heart of Europe.
Nonetheless, the empire managed to resume its expansion in the 800’s. The empire’s armed forces caused the Arab forces to move out of all possible fronts. During the reign of Basil I, the empire once again experienced a major success starting from 867 until 1025 (Ranciman, 1990). He started to from a new set of laws. The law has been completed by Leo VI who started to rule in 886. Under the governance of Constantine VII beginning from 913 until 959, the arts continued to flourish. Constantine VII also authored handbooks on government. In 976, Emperor Basil II reclaimed eastern Asia Minor and once again took over Bulgaria (Grant, 1998). As the empire continued to expand and with it, trade similarly thrived, the empire prospered.
By the year 1054, a conflict in the West developed (Runciman, 1990). In that same year, a debate questioning the authority of the pope in the empire caused a split among the churches in both the east and west regions.
Notwithstanding continuing invasions, the empire remained fairly stable and prosperous for several hundred years. To guard their territories, Byzantine emperors depended on shrewd diplomacy in addition to well-trained defense forces. Emperors were skilled at using bribes to gain friends, establishing alliances, as well as in setting up political marriages. By means of provoking hate, they maintained their enemies. Nevertheless, continuing attacks from various directions nibbled away at Byzantine territory.
In the early eleventh century a formidable new enemy appeared in the east (Goffmann, 2002; Runciman, 1990). The Seljuk Turks, originally from Central Asia, had converted to Islam. Moving steadily westward, in 1071, they destroyed the Byzantine army at the town of Manzikert on the empire’s eastern frontier (Goffmann, 2002). The Seljuks were now in a position to overrun Asia Minor.
The Byzantine appealed to European Christians for military help in resisting the Turks. Western Europeans did want to drive the Turks from Christian holy places in the Near East, but they had little interest in restoring lands to the Byzantines (Goffmann, 2002; Odahl, 2004). Crusading knights set up their own kingdoms in territories they captured in the Near East. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the Western European knights and Venetian merchants decided to capture the rich city of Constantinople for themselves rather than fight the Muslims. The knights wanted the city’s wealth, while the Venetians sought control over the rich Byzantine trade (Odahl, 2004).
The Byzantine Empire had been disastrously weakened. It also faced problems of crushing taxes, decreasing agricultural production, declining trade, and loss of territory.
The deathblow to the empire was dealt by another group of Turks. The Ottoman Turks had accepted Islam and begun to build an empire in Asia Minor (Runciman, 1990). They drove the Byzantines and the earlier Turkish conquerors from Asia Minor and occupied much of the Balkans. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Byzantine Empire consisted of only the city of Constantinople and two small territories in Greece (Grant, 1998).
In 1453 the Turks attacked Constantinople itself, outnumbering the Byzantines sixteen to one (Grant, 1998). Aided by the huge cannon that fired thousand-pound iron balls, the Turks broke down Constantinople’s great walls. The invaders looted the city and slaughtered thousands of people. After more than a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire had come to an end.
In reference to recorded history, much is attributed to the significance to world civilization of this once mighty and powerful empire. While learning declined in Europe in the early Middle Ages, Byzantine scholars were studying the laws, mathematics, science, philosophy, literature, and the arts of both the ancient Greeks and Romans. Although they made few original contributions, the Byzantines kept much ancient knowledge from being lost. Their works stimulated scholarship in the Muslim world and helped bring about their revival of learning in Western Europe.
This once mighty and powerful empire existed to protect much of the European continent against the forces of the Turks and Arabs as well as other barbarian invaders. They preserved the philosophy and literature left by ancient Greece. Likewise, they preserved the legal as well as governmental traditions of Rome. It was through the adaptation of Roman customs, Greek culture, and the Christian religion which allowed the establishment of a link connecting the modern to the ancient civilization of Europe.
Goffmann, D. (2002). The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Grant, M. (1998). From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century A.D. New York: Routledge.
Odahl, C.M. (2004). Constantine and the Christian Empire. New York: Routledge.
Runciman, S. (1990). The Fall of Constantinople, 1453. New York: Cambridge University