Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire at the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire saw a great increase in power. It became known as the Byzantine Empire; or, more simply, Byzantium. Byzantium lasted from the 4th to the 13th century, nearly a thousand years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
The Byzantine Empire is one of the longest lasting civilisations in history, stretching all the way from the ancient era to the beginning of the modern world. The capital city of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, was the wealthiest city in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and was located in what is now the European side of Istanbul.
The founder of Constantinople (first called Byzantium) was Emperor Constantine the First. Constantine made the city of Byzantium the capital of what would go on to become the Byzantine Empire.
Under Constantine’s rule, the Eastern Roman Empire grew very wealthy and powerful. Constantine was also the first leader of Eastern Europe to accept Christianity as a religion of the state, which would prove to be an incredibly important decision for the empire’s next millennium.
Emperor Constantine established a dynasty during his time in power, one which would go on to rule the Byzantine Empire for centuries. Although Constantine was the founder of the Byzantine Empire’s capital, the Empire itself was not divided until after his death.
The first great ruler of the real Byzantine Empire came in the year 527, when Justinian the First ascended the throne.
Under Justinian’s rule, the Byzantine Empire reached new heights of power and glory, and became renowned the world over for its wealth and military strength. Under Justinian’s rule, the Byzantine Empire spread its reach to control most of the land touching the Mediterranean Sea, including some of the countries of North Africa.
On Justinian’s orders, great structures were built in the name of the church – including the world-famous cathedral, Hagia Sofia.
Justinian also ordered huge reform to the Empire’s system of law. He combined the thousands of Roman laws into a single code that was enacted as the state constitution: the Corpus of Civil Law. He also greatly encouraged the development of the arts: music, literature, poetry, and painting.
The Empire had its own Renaissance in this period, a time where most of Byzantium’s culture was developed. Much of its culture was dedicated to religion – particularly its art and architecture.
However, things were not all good for the people of Byzantium. The rapid expansion of the Empire meant that the country accrued a lot of debt (owed a huge amount of money) to the country along its border, and the following rulers of the Justinian dynasty spent many years trying to repay it. This debt led to loss of territory due to military weakness.
As the Islamic armies of Asia and Africa gained power, countries like Syria, Egypt and Jerusalem were taken back from the Byzantine empire.
Partly due to the loss of these territories, the Byzantine Empire grew distant from the Catholic Church. In 1054 A.D., the Byzantine Empire was officially separated from the Catholic Church, and Constantinople became the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity became the dominant religion of eastern Europe, eventually being adopted by the people of the Kievan Rus, and remains popular in the region to this day.
However, without the support of the Catholic Church and its armies, the Byzantine empire had a much harder time battling against the Muslim armies of the East and South. The armies of Byzantium fought a “holy war” against the Muslims for several centuries, having to petition the Pope for aid on multiple occasions.
This battling greatly weakened the military strength of Byzantium, and eventually, in the year 1454 (after the end of the Middle Ages) Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, and the Eastern Roman Empire fell with it.
– Emperor Constantine the First.
– Byzantium. (In modern times, it was renamed to Istanbul.)
– King Justinian the First.