Welcome to ‘The History of the Byzantine Empire’ blog series. This is not a new project in the strictest sense. I have been reading on the subject for about 20 years now. It all began one day when I was looking into reading further about Croatia (my parents birthplace) and its history. There wasn’t many books back in the mid 1990’s on Croatia, so I found myself reading other European history that mentioned Croatia to get my fix. I accidentally stumbled across my first Byzantine history book, entitled ‘The Byzantine Commonwealth: Eastern Europe 500-1453′ by Dimitri Obolensky, which had interesting sections dotted throughout on the Balkans and Croatia. Being curious I thought it would be a great investment, so I bought it. I initially struggled through it, but by the end of it I was completely mesmerized by this so called Byzantine Empire. It was full of intrigue and everything about it was exotic (to me).
The term ‘Byzantine’ was first coined over 400 years ago, to describe what was the Eastern half of the Roman Empire that survived after the fall of the west in 476. Many historians saw its subsequent thousand year history as nothing more than a slide into barbarism, corruption and decay. For them all that was classical and truly Rome ended in 476 and at first, to describe this continuation of the Roman Empire, the derogative term Byzantium was created. This term was appropriated from the classical greek named city of Byzantion, later renamed Nova Roma and then Constantinople. Edward Gibbon also once referred to the Byzantine Empire as the ‘Greek Empire’ and a betrayal of all that was best in ancient Greece and Rome.
In viewing Byzantium in this light, its study as a history became unpopular, hard to follow and finally just simple ignored. I remember only ever studying Classical Roman history at school and would often later wonder what this other empire was in the east?
Looking forward to the 20th Century, historians of our time around the world would rediscover its glory, intrigue and rich history. Great historians like John Julius Norwich, Steven Runciman, Cyril Mango, Warren Treadgold and Lars Brownworth would blaze that path of discovery for amateur historians, like myself, and people who just simply love history. To my surprise, I too would learn like many students of history, that the Roman Empire did not fall in 476, but survived in the East until 1453. We would all rediscover that its civilization drew on pagan, Christian, Greek, Roman and medieval components. Furthermore, we would also rediscover that its influence would wax and wane for over a thousand years, influencing all countries of the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and Western Europe. Robert Byron probably best described the Byzantine Empire as a ‘triple fusion’. An Empire of a Roman body, a Greek mind and a mystic soul.
With all my new found insight and enthusiasm, it is my attempt here to present its story from Roman beginnings to the fall of Constantinople. In the words of John Julius Norwich “The luckless historian can only weigh the probabilities and tell his story as best he can.” This is my aim too, to tell you the reader a thousand year story as best as I can.
I will present it in chronological order beginning with Constantine the Great. I will also deviate from the narrative occasionally to talk about things like Byzantine art, archeology, monuments, trade and issues related to Byzantium today. I warn you though, I make no claim to being an expert. I am armed only with a great personal library, sheer enthusiasm and a love for history.
The header image is the ruins of an old byzantine church at the Acropolis of Lindos, Island of Rhodes, Greece. It is in the public domain.