There are individuals and groups of communities that argue that there is no such thing as the Byzantine Empire. To some people, the Byzantine Empire never existed and they say that we shouldn’t be making a distinction between old Rome and the Roman Empire (in the east) that survived into the medieval world. Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion and I respect their views.
A trusted friend recently told me that the word ‘Byzantine’ is just a word and that it shouldn’t carry the baggage that many people believe it does. I agree, and like to use the term ‘Byzantine’ to distinguish ‘Christian’ Rome from pagan Rome and I suppose, to recognise the shift in the fifth and sixth century to a more Greek-speaking civilization.
Interestingly, 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 Byzantium’s glory, intrigue and rich history. Great historians like John Julius Norwich, Steven Runciman, Cyril Mango and Warren Treadgold 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.