The Byzantine Empire often evokes negative stereotypes, like oppression and bureaucracy. Even the adjective “byzantine” means devious or convoluted. But regardless of stereotypes, what actually was the Byzantine Empire?
The Byzantine Empire (330–1453 AD) was the Roman Empire based in Constantinople, so it is often called the Eastern Roman Empire. For over 1,000 years, the Byzantine Empire was the most powerful empire in Europe. At some points they ruled much of the Mediterranean World, but the core of the empire was the Balkans (eastern Europe) and Asia Minor (Turkey). In terms of culture, politics, and arts, the Byzantine Empire continued the classical traditions of Greco-Roman antiquity.
The Byzantium Empire was synonymous with Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The Orthodox Church was the empire’s most unifying and stable cultural institution. The Byzantine emperor was Christendom’s divinely appointed ruler, so he took an active interest in church affairs. The Byzantine Empire was home to all seven Ecumenical Church Councils and most early Christian theologians. The Orthodox Church and monasticism were core aspects of the empire.
The New Rome
The title of Byzantium Empire, or Byzantium, is not entirely accurate. The people considered themselves the “Roman Empire.” Even to this day, Orthodox Christians in the region are called Romans. The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire, even though the Byzantine period was distinct from the classical Roman Empire (31 BC–476 AD) in terms of language (Greek, not Latin), geography (Constantinople, not Rome), and religion (Christianity, not imperial polytheism). By the Middle Ages Western Romans were linguistically, culturally, and theologically distinct from Constantinople. Western Europeans disdained the Greek-speaking Romans in Constantinople, and sought the title “Roman Empire” for themselves. After the fall of Constantinople, Western scholars relabeled the late Roman Empire as the “Byzantium Empire” to minimize its historical significance and "Roman-ness." But historically, the Byzantine Empire was the eastern Roman Empire with a capital in Constantinople.
The era of three Byzantine emperors shaped the empire’s history and culture.
Constantine the Great
The most significant Byzantine ruler was Constantine the Great. He was a Roman general who converted to Christianity in 314 AD after Jesus appeared to him in a dream and promised military victory. Constantine made Christianity the preferred religion of the Roman Empire. This step linked the Church with political powers, and began the era of Christendom. In 330 Constantine declared Byzantium (a small settlement on the Bosphorus) the new capital of the Roman Empire. In honor of himself, he named it Constantine. As the first Christian emperor and first emperor based in Constantinople, Constantine is considered the “founder” of the Byzantine Empire.
Justinian the Great
Justinian (527–565) was the most powerful Byzantine emperor in history. He produced the famous Justinian Code that shaped Slavic and Western law codes. Justinian restored the Roman Empire by retaking Western Europe with devastating military conquests. He provided significant support to the Church, including the construction of the famous Hagia Sophia church. The earliest churches in Cappadocia date to this period. After the zenith of Justinian’s reign, the Byzantine Empire slowly waned.
The Macedonian ruler Basil II (975–1025) expanded the empire with successful military campaigns in the east (Arabia) and the west (Bulgaria), the largest since the days of Justinian. The Byzantine Empire experienced social stability and financial prosperity. Basil's long reign was part of the Byzantine Renaissance, the period of the Macedonian dynasty (867–1056) when Byzantine arts and literature flourished. Most cave churches in Cappadocia were built during this period.
The Decline and Fall
The Byzantine Empire’s economic and political decline started during the Byzantine Dark Ages, or “Middle Byzantine Period” (700–1204 AD). Several factors shaped the decline of the empire.
The Iconoclasm Controversy (726–842) was a theological dispute over the role of painted pictures (icons) in church worship. The argument became a virtual civil war that divided the country, pitting rulers against popular monks.
Islamic empires conquered Byzantine territories in the Arabian Peninsula and Northern Africa. From 650–850 AD they repeatedly besieged Constantinople and raided the regions of Cappadocia. These military incursions, along with the iconoclastic controversies, explain why there are few cave churches in Cappadocia from this period. In the 1070’s Seljuk Turks overtook central Anatolia and ruled the area for 200 years. Then Ottoman Turks rose to power and vanquished the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
Around 1090, Byzantine emperors invited Christian solders from Western Europe to come fight against Muslim invaders and restore the Holy Land to Christendom. These Crusades (1100–1300AD), in the end, mostly plundered and weakened the Byzantine Empire. The Western Roman Church and Eastern Orthodox Church had been parting ways for centuries, but the Crusaders’ sacking of Constantinople in 1204 was the definitive break in relations. After the crusades, the Italian maritime powers of Venice and Genoa controlled Constantinople as their trading outpost.
The Ottoman Empire had surrounded the city of Constantinople by 1400. On May 29, 1453, the Ottoman ruler Mehmet the Conquerer breached the infamous walls of Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire.
Western history has treated the Byzantine Empire as the antithesis of Classical and European civilization—crude, archaic, and oppressive. But reality is more nuanced. The Byzantine Empire, as heirs of Rome, transmitted the classical culture of Greco-Roman antiquity to the modern world. After the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantines carried their Greek manuscripts of classical philosophers and biblical texts to Western Europe. These documents influenced the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation of Western Europe. Through political and religious activity in the Balkan region, the Byzantine Empire birthed the Slavic-Orthodox culture that persists in Eastern Europe and Russian today. And even the Ottoman Empire adopted many social, economic, political institutions from the Byzantine Empire. In these ways, the Byzantine Empire—i.e, the Roman Empire located in Constantinople from 320–1453 AD—greatly impacted modern Europe and the world.