The Byzantine Empire

28.04.2015 |

Episode #3 of the course “The Most Powerful Empires in History”

The Byzantine Empire is the only empire west of China that survived from ancient times to the birth of the modern age; it continued on long after “true” Rome fell. At its height, it included 1.5 million square miles in parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe. When Constantine, a Roman emperor, declared that Byzantium would be his “new Rome” in 330 A.D., the Byzantine Empire was born. Although Constantine ruled over a united Roman empire, a deep split occurred shortly after his death. Rome was on the western side, and its location made it susceptible to German attacks; it fell to a barbarian named Odoacer in 476.

The eastern part of the Roman Empire was not nearly as vulnerable to attack as the west side, which likely contributed to the Byzantine Empire’s longevity. Its strong internal government and wealth helped as well (the Byzantine Empire is often considered wealthier than Rome ever was). Political life was relatively stable, making it much easier to organize and control troops. The Byzantine Empire used Roman law and legal institutions. The official language was technically Latin, but both Greek and Latin were both spoken here.

Perhaps the most famous Byzantine leader was Justinian I (527-565). Because of Justinian, the Byzantine Empire retook the western portion of the Roman Empire after it fell to barbarians, including North Africa. He encouraged the creation of some of the most famous monuments of the era, including Hagia Sophia (or the Church of Holy Wisdom). He also codified and altered Roman law, creating changes that significantly affected the modern state.

The Byzantine Empire may be best known for the development of a well-known religious Catholic leadership role, the Pope. The Christian Council of Chalcedon divided the empire into five patriarchates, with a separate ruler in each area. The Byzantine emperor was the head of the patriarchate of Constantinople, and he was considered both the head of the church and the head of the state. Rome was also one of the patriarchates, and the leader there would later call himself the Pope.

By most accounts the Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Greek and Roman Empires, and in fact, it is very difficult to separate the three very interconnected periods. The Byzantine Empire is credited with preserving the foundations of the Western world, including notable works from artists and philosophers, so without this period, the modern Western world would not be the same.


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