Byzantine Empire: Definition, History & Characteristics

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Date 395 – 1453
Capital Constantinople
Location Eastern Mediterranean
Idiom Latin and Greek
Religion Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church
Form of Government Autocracy

What was the Byzantine Empire?

Byzantine Empire also known as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium that lasted for 10 centuries after the fall of the Western. It was one of the great empires in history. Its name, which began to be used in the 16th century, comes from Byzantium, the ancient city on which its capital, Constantinople, was founded.

The Byzantine Empire considered itself the true continuation of the Roman Empire and, during its long tenure, was the hub of trade between East and West. From the eleventh century, a process of decline began that was accentuated by the occupation of the city by the troops of Roman Christianity during the Fourth Crusade.

The end of the empire, on May 29, 1453, when the city fell under the army of the Ottoman Empire, is generally regarded as the end of the Middle Ages.

Flag and coat of arms of the Byzantine Empire

Flag and coat of arms of the Byzantine Empire.

Origin of the Byzantine Empire

In 330 A.D., before the advance of the Germanic peoples on Italy, the Emperor Constantine decided to transfer the capital of the Roman Empire and chose for the new location the ancient city ​​of Byzantium, on the Asian bank of the Bosphorus. There he built a new city that, after the death of the emperor, received the name of Constantinople and became the center of the empire.

In 395, Emperor Theodosius divided the Roman Empire into two parts to facilitate his rule, Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 476 AD, with the fall of Rome to the Germans, the Western Roman Empire disintegrated.

The Eastern sector, the Eastern Roman Empire, on the other hand, lasted until 1453.

Location of the Byzantine Empire

For most of its history, the Byzantine Empire occupied the Balkan peninsula and Anatolia, although it had different extensions as territories were conquered or lost.

It reached its maximum surface during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565) who managed to recover much of the territories of the Western Roman Empire.

Location of the Byzantine Empire

Extension of the Byzantine Empire around 550.

Characteristics of the Byzantine Empire

The main characteristics of the Byzantine Empire are the following:

  • Its economy was based on agri-cultural production and trade.
  • Much of its greatness was the result of the production of wealth through trade. Its strategic location in a territory that links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea made it an obligatory point of passage for trade between the East, especially China and India, with Western Europe.
  • Although it was a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, and its inhabitants considered themselves Roman, its culture was eminently GreekGreek was also their main language.
  • It had a powerful army, as well as a war fleet that protected merchant ships from attack by pirates. A fundamental weapon was the so-called “Byzantine or Greek fire”. This incendiary weapon released a fire that was not quenched with water and consumed materials very quickly.
  • The center of Constantinople‘s social life was the hippodrome, where horse-drawn chariot races were held. Most of the population belonged to one of the two most important teams. Their rivalry exceeded sports, since they responded to opposite political and religious tendencies, the blues were more conservative in politics and the greens more reformist.
  • It reached its peak during the reign of Justinian. This emperor broke with the papacy; he wrote the Justinian Code, which updated the Roman legal system; it reached the maximum territorial expansion and promoted cultural and artistic production.

photo of the orthodox basilica of Hagia Sophia

The Orthodox Basilica of Santa Sofia is considered the greatest exponent of Byzantine architecture. It was built during the reign of Justinian I and is currently a Muslim mosque.

Political and Social Organization of the Byzantine Empire

Political Organization of the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire was a Theocratic state. From the reign of Justinian I, Caesaropapism began, that is, the emperor had political (Caesar) and religious power (he was also the pope). Therefore, the emperor was a representative of God on earth.

The empire was organized as a centralized state with an extremely efficient administrative bureaucracy that was in charge of regulating and controlling all aspects of the state organization: from the organization of the army, justice and religious matters, to currency, weights and measures, quality control of artisanal production, etc.

Social Organization of the Byzantine Empire

The social organization of the Byzantine Empire was characterized as follows:

  • Byzantine society was hierarchical . The highest place in society was held by the emperor, his family, and the ruling aristocracy.
  • There was also a wide social group made up of merchants, specialized artisans and professionals from different disciplines (writers, doctors, lawyers, etc.), who had wealth and enjoyed comforts.
  • On a lower scale were the small merchants and farmers.
  • Finally, there were slaves that came from trade and territorial conquests.
  • The city of Constantinople was also inhabited by collectives of prosperous merchants such as the Venetians and the Genoese who occupied entire neighborhoods and used to also exercise diplomatic functions.

Religion of the Byzantine Empire

The religion of the empire was Christianity. The Byzantines claimed to be the representatives of the original Christianity and maintained permanent conflicts with the papacy installed in Rome. In 1054, in the East-West Schism, the Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church definitively separated from the Roman Church.

Justinian Mosaic

Justinian mosaic, 6th century AD. C, church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Fall of the Byzantine Empire

By the middle of the 15th century the Empire was practically reduced to the city of Constantinople and its surroundings. His constant disputes with the papacy, as well as the loss of commercial pre-eminence in the hands of Venetians and Genoese, added to the permanent siege of the Arabs and the Ottoman Turks, had led him to a situation of extreme weakness.

In April 1453, the city was besieged by a huge army from the Ottoman Empire. Despite the heroic resistance of its inhabitants, it was occupied by the Turks on May 29 of that year.

The fall of Constantinople meant the end of the Byzantine Empire, as well as the collapse of the trade routes between East and West. This event is also taken by some authors as the end of the Middle Ages.

  • Hernández de la Fuente, David A. Brief history of Byzantium. Madrid, Alliance. 2014.
  • Bravo, Antonio. Byzantium. Profiles of an Empire. Madrid, Akal. 1997.
  • Norwich, John Julius. Brief History of Byzantium. Madrid, Chair. 2000.
  • Treagold, Warren. Brief History of Byzantium. Barcelona, ​​Paidós. 2001.
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