The Byzantine Empire

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Byzantine Empire

As of about AD 500, the Byzantine Empire comprised the entire eastern half of the old Roman Empire, from the Balkans on eastward to Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, including Egypt. Three major influences shaped the Byzantine Empire— Greek, Roman, and Christian. The Greek cultural and philosophical influence was the result of geography; the Byzantine Empire was centered in the Greek half of the former Roman Empire. The Roman influence was legal and political; since what became the Byzantine Empire had been administered from Rome for centuries, its leaders were accustomed to Roman methods of organization. The Christian influence was there from the very beginning, with the conversion of the emperor Constantine and his decree that his subjects would practice his religion. Christianity was the central defining factor of the Byzantine Empire throughout its existence.

Politics and Government

The Byzantine emperor was regarded somewhat differently from the Roman emperor. The Romans had considered their emperor to be himself a god. The Byzantines, on the other hand, believed that their emperor was God’s representative on earth.

Just like the Romans and all other successful empires, the Byzantines had a highly efficient bureaucracy and an impressive army. Byzantine civil servants were educated at the University of Constantinople, which was founded in the fifth century. This shared educational background served as a unifying factor across all branches of the civil service. The military featured an intimidating cavalry with great skill at archery. The Byzantines also inherited the Roman skill at architecture, building impressive fortifications.

Below the emperor, the Byzantine aristocracy was divided into three groups: bureaucrats, clergy, and military officers. The bulk of the army was drawn from among the farmers at first; as time went on, however, the Byzantines began relying more and more on mercenaries, just as the Romans had done. Below the aristocracy were the merchants and peasants. Byzantine women had certain legal rights, just as they had under Rome; three even ruled all of Byzantium as empresses. An educated Byzantine woman from a wealthy and powerful family could wield considerable social and even political influence.

The wealth of the empire was based on agricultural production, but it also profited hugely from international trade. Constantinople was on the Bosporus strait, in an ideal geographical position for a port. All ships sailing into or out of the Black Sea stopped at Constantinople. The empire traded with Russia and Africa and even had contact with China. One of the Emperor Justinian’s most profitable decisions was to send spies to smuggle silkworms out of the Asian empire. This allowed the Byzantines to begin manufacturing their own silk, which up to that time had been a secret exclusive to the Chinese.

Justinian and his wife Theodora reigned over the empire from 527 to 565. Justinian is best remembered for his expansionist policies. His goal was to reunite the two halves of the Roman Empire, with Constantinople as the new capital. Under the great military commander Belisarius, the Byzantines took back a great portion of the territory they sought. By 533, they had captured the North African coast to the west of Egypt. They recaptured the southern tip of Spain in 552, and by 554 they controlled Italy. However, this was the end of expansion under Justinian. Various stumbling blocks arose. First, Justinian had spent so much money on the military that the imperial treasury was in a condition of grave vulnerability. Second, the Slavs and the Persians had taken up arms and were attacking the Byzantine Empire from the east and north, thus diverting military attention from advancing into the west. Third, the bubonic plague struck the Mediterranean in 541.

The bubonic plague originated in the East and was brought westward on trading ships. Highly infectious, it was spread by flea and rat bites and close contact. Symptoms included raging fever, delirium, aching joints, vomiting, and painful swellings in the armpits and groin. Very little could be done to make a sick person comfortable, let alone cure him or her. Most of the plague’s victims died within a week of catching the disease. Plagues would recur throughout the medieval era, taking a heavy toll on the European population again and again.

The early seventh century was an era of bewildering shifts in the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire. Economic crises and foreign invasions characterized the first decade, with Slavs, Persians, and Lombards (from northern Italy) all attacking the empire from different directions. The Persians had the greatest success, taking over most of the empire by the year 626. Heraclitus, who became emperor in 610, persuaded Constantinople’s churches to fund a deter- mined military drive to recover the lost territory, a goal achieved by 627. By 636, however, the same territory was in Persian hands once again.

Arabs arrived at the gates of Constantinople in 673 but did not succeed in taking the capital; a second attempt in 717 also failed. The city’s heavy fortifications proved more than adequate to protect it. The Byzantines also had better weapons than the Arabs and a great military leader in the person of Emperor Leo III. In the end, however, the Arabs conquered about half the Byzantine territory.

The Eastern European Slavs also issued serious challenges to Byzantine authority. From the late 500s, Slavic power and influence spread throughout the Balkans and into Greece. At the same time, the Bulgars of Central Asia, who were ethnically related to the Huns, established the kingdom of Bulgaria in the Balkans.

The end result of the era of invasion and conquest was to make the Byzantine Empire a more manageable size, easier to administer and defend. Several historical factors favored continuing Byzantine success in the region. First, the Arab caliphate in the East began to fall apart, breaking into smaller independent kingdoms that constituted a lesser threat to Constantinople. Second, the Byzantines continued to send out missionaries; as the Slavs converted to Christianity, they recognized the authority of the emperor. Third, the population rose for two reasons: the wave of bubonic plagues died out, and new agricultural practices led to larger harvests.

A change of dynasty took place in 867, when Basil I usurped the throne. He rose from peasant origins to a prominent position at the imperial court. After a violent beginning—Basil seized power by murdering a rival and then engineering the assassination of Emperor Michael III—he became an able and intelligent ruler. This began the Macedonian dynasty of Byzantine emperors, so named because Basil I came from the old Macedonian region of Thrace. Between 966 and 1014, Basil II brought the kingdom of Bulgaria and its holdings back into the empire; his methods were so violent that he earned the nickname “Bulgar-Slayer.”

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