The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire or simply Byzantium, emerged as a substantial and influential civilization whose roots can be traced back to the year 330. It was during this time that the Roman emperor Constantine I established a “New Rome” along with its namesake capital, Constantinople, on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium. Situated on the European side of the Bosporus, the strait connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, this location proved to be strategically advantageous for facilitating transit and trade between Europe and Asia.
While the western portion of the Roman Empire experienced decline and ultimately collapsed in 476, the Eastern Roman Empire persevered for an additional millennium, giving rise to a diverse heritage of art, literature, and legal systems.
Constantinople (modern Istanbul) had an excellent natural harbor at the Golden Horn inlet. As time unfurled its tapestry, Constantinople witnessed the addition of increasingly magnificent structures, evolving into a cosmopolitan metropolis that stood as a pinnacle of grandeur across the ages. Undoubtedly, it reigned as the world’s most wealthy, luxurious, and important Christian hub.
Map of Constantinople in the Byzantine period, corresponding to the modern-day Fatih district of Istanbul
In the backdrop, the empire’s borders danced to the rhythm of military conquests and defeats, while the political landscape underwent a constant metamorphosis, reshaped by the ebb and flow of neighboring empires. During the reign of Justinian I, Byzantium soared to its zenith, reclaiming vast tracts of land around the Mediterranean Sea.
The Byzantine Empire (red) and its vassals (pink) in 555 during the reign of Justinian I
Ascending to power in 527 and reigning until his passing in 565, Justinian I emerged as the first extraordinary ruler of the Byzantine Empire. Notably, Justinian’s reign witnessed the construction of numerous splendid monuments, including the awe-inspiring domed marvel, the Church of Holy Wisdom, famously known as Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
Justinian also changed and organized Roman law, creating the Justinian Code or Corpus Juris Civilis (Corpus of Civil Law). This code, which had more than a million words, stayed in use for 900 years. It made the laws easier to understand for everyone, made legal cases go faster, and greatly impacted how legal systems worked in Western democracies after that.
Unfortunately, many regions of the empire consistently needed strong protection against various persistent enemies. The wars drained the empire’s resources, and by the late 7th century, Byzantium lost essential territories such as Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt, and North Africa to Islamic forces.
During the late 10th and early 11th centuries, when the Macedonian dynasty, founded by Basil I, was in charge, the Byzantine Empire experienced a golden era. Even though Byzantium covered less land, it had more influence over trade, greater wealth, and more recognition on the global stage compared to the time of Justinian I. The powerful imperial government supported Byzantine art, including the treasured Byzantine mosaics we admire today.
Justinian I, as depicted in mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
In 1071, the empire suffered a major defeat from the Seljuk Turks. Wars and invasions led to the loss of most of Asia Minor (Anatolia). Over time, the situation improved, and up until the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople held its place as Europe’s largest and wealthiest city.
Then, during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city was attacked by Latins, causing the empire to split into Greek and Latin parts. Although Constantinople was reclaimed in 1261, the Byzantine Empire remained weak during its last two centuries. The once-mighty Byzantine economy was seriously damaged and never fully recovered. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Ottoman Empire progressively assumed authority over Byzantine lands.
The territorial evolution of the Eastern Roman Empire under each imperial dynasty
In 1453, the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire—the longest-standing medieval power. Those who managed to escape fled to places like Italy and other parts of Europe, sparking the Renaissance.
The word Renaissance, meaning “rebirth,” symbolized the increasing fascination with ancient Greek culture, language, literature, and art. While the culture of Ancient Greece seemed forgotten in the “dark” Middle Ages in Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire retained Greek influence throughout. Byzantium not only controlled Ancient Greek territories but also spoke the Greek language and continued to study writings from late Antiquity. Constantinople’s flourishing “renaissance” notably predated the Italian Renaissance. So, for some, the fall to the Ottomans signaled the conclusion of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Early Modern era.
Words of wisdom
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” ―Albert Einstein
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” ―Eleanor Roosevelt
“Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” ―Rosa Luxemburg
“If only we'd stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.” ―Edith Wharton